Home is Where the Hades Is

“Praises, my dears, welcome home,” a musical voice floated out on the still air as Thanatos and Angela climbed the stairs to the entrance of the enormous mansion. 

Looking up, Angela saw a tall woman wrapped in silks of rich colors—the purple of the grape, the gold of ripe wheat, the blue of a kingfisher. Her tight curls were crowned by a crown of golden leaves and her face and body were those of a simple, joyful country girl accustomed to herding sheep, gathering crops, dancing in festivals and swimming in sunlit streams. Her skin was chalky white and her smiling mouth bright red.

 

34a

 

“Who’s that?” Angela whispered to Thanatos, amazed.

“The Mistress,” he said, as if it were obvious.

A ringing laugh echoed against the marble surfaces.

“My name is Persephone, darling. I’m your stepmother.”

Angela curtsied and took the hand that Persephone extended. It was as cold as a refrigerated cucumber.

“Did you have any trouble at the river?” Persephone asked Thanatos.

“Everything unfolded as you predicted,” he murmured.

“And the judges? Did that that stickler Rhadamanthus give you trouble?”

“Some, Mistress,” Thanatos admitted, “But your plan worked beautifully.”

“Excellent,” Persephone smiled broadly, her cheeks round as apples. She sighed happily and took Angela’s face in her hands. “Let me look at you, dear. Lovely. I think you will do very well.”

“What?” Angela asked.

Persephone laughed. “I mean, silly-cakes,” she said, pinching Angela’s cheek, “That you will be very happy here. Now come with me and meet everyone!” She took Angela by the hand and took her into the cool recesses of the marble mansion.

 

interior-house-ancient-greece

 

The first room they stopped at contained a very big man sitting on a throne frowning at a scroll of papyrus. His face was mostly lost in a bushy black beard and the dark curls of his head were tamed somewhat by a simple gold circlet. He wore a tunic of coarse black wool with a gold chain around the waist.

“Hades!” said Persephone. “Hades, hey!” She clapped her hands.

“Mmmfph?” He grunted, basso profundo, “What is it?” he looked up in alarm, as one who has suddenly been woken from a daydream.

“Hades, this is Zeus’ daughter Angelia—you remember her.”

“Eh? Who?”

“Oh Hades, she’s your niece! She’s the one Hera banished from Olympus after she threw her designer handbag into Mount Etna?”

He shook his head.

“You must remember. She’s the baby who replaced Hera’s face cream with a pot of snakes?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Was I really that bad?” Angela whispered.

“When she came to live with us she used to be so, er, vivacious that Cerberos used to come and hide under your chair, whimpering?”

That pernicious little shrike?” He gripped the edge of his couch until his knuckles turned what. “What’s she doing here? I thought we banished her.”

 

Hades
What now?”

 

Persephone patted Angela on the shoulder, “Not at all. She took a little holiday, that’s all. But now she’s back and look—all civilized and sweet.”

Hades looked her up and down.

“Hard to tell from appearances. Have you checked her for weapons?”

“He’s such a joker,” Persephone murmured to Angela.

“Just keep her away from my blueprints,” said Hades.

“Yes, dear.”

Persephone beckoned Angela away.

“Come away, I’ll take you to the women’s quarters to meet your house sisters.”

Persephone moved swiftly ahead and somehow to Angela it seemed as though she were floating. Her own feet made loud slaps on the stone floor, but Persephone was silent. She seemed to throw out golden specks of grain that caught the light of lamps blazing in niches carved in the walls. Angela noticed the sweet overripe smell of persimmons and apples.

They reached a hall at the end of the mansion. It was painted in rich reds, yellows, purples and oranges. In the center of the hall there was a huge loom being worked by a tall girl in a rose-pink peplos. She was just as pale as her mother, though her hair was blonde and wreathed with roses and baby’s breath. She gazed at Angela with wonder, with large child-innocent eyes.

“Praises, dear girls, your sister is here!” Persephone announced with a smiling voice. Angela felt genuinely important and proud, a novel sensation.

“Oh, I’m so pleased you’ve come!” the pink girl cried and flew over to Angela with the same eerie floating motion.

 

39

 

“I’m Elpis,” she said taking Angela’s hand in her cold one, “I just know you’ll love it here. Everyone will adore you, won’t they mama?”

Elpis turned her limpid eyes to Persephone, who nodded smilingly. “Just wait until we do your hair and put you in proper clothes and tend to your skin. You’ll be the belle of the ball!”

A nasty laugh came from a corner of the room. For the first time, Angela noticed that there was a giraffe standing there, blowing soap bubbles out of its nostrils.

“Ridiculous girl! Remember your manners,” Persephone said sternly.

The giraffe blinked placidly at her with long lashes, then suddenly disappeared.

Elpis let out a shriek as she saw a tarantula scuttling the floor in her direction.

 

GettyImages-sb10068782j-001-572915463df78ced1f0b90f6

 

Mama! Tell her not to!”

The spider metamorphosed into a copy of Elpis, except that she wore a bushy beard.

“That’s enough young lady,” Persephone thundered. “Behave, or Hades will hear of it.”

There was a disembodied sigh and then a pop-eyed teenaged girl appeared. She was just as pale as the other two but wore a plain black peplos held in place by a brooch that looked like moonstone and gave off iridescent flashes apparently of its own accord.

“This is my youngest daughter Melinoë,” Persephone said somewhat apologetically. “You’ll be sharing her room for now. In fact, why don’t you make yourself useful and show Angela her room?” Persephone suggested to her daughter.

Melinoë scowled and puffed out her cheeks.

“All right. Come on,” she said without looking at Angela.

Melinoë didn’t wait but headed straight for the door and Angela had to hurry to keep up. They ended up in a little corner room with two basic beds covered with extremely thin cushions. Angela thought wistfully of her comfortable bedroom back home.

Melinoë sat down on her bed and stared at Angela, who squirmed under the scrutiny.

“Wow, that was amazing how you changed into different stuff like that,” Angela blurted to break the silence. “That was neat.”

The teen continued to stare.

“It’s my thing,” she said.

“What?”

“Most people here have a thing, you know, a power. Mine’s changing shape and giving people nightmares. Elpis gives people false hope–she lifts their spirits even though something terrible is about to happen. My boyfriend Achlys is really good at making people feel like they’re being bitten by termites.” She chuckled. “What’s your thing?” Melinoë crossed her legs and put her chin in her hands, leaning forward with interest.

“Um. Well…” Angela bit her lip. “I’m not sure I have a thing.”

“Oh.” Melinoë looked glum.

Angela felt her smartphone in her pocket and took it out. Luckily the batteries had not completely died.

“But, I do have this. It’s a, uh, a sort of crystal ball that you can use to see into the Overworld.”

Melinoë definitely brightened up.

“Can I see?”

“Yes. I’ll show you a picture of the jazz band at my school.”

She played a video of the band playing ‘Misty’. Melinoë gazed at it intensely.

“They all look like you,” she said. “They have that healthy skin and look all happy. It looks nice.” Melinoë sighed.

Angela was surprised.

“Don’t you like it here? Aren’t you a princess?”

“Practically everyone’s a princess here,” Melinoë scoffed. “It gets pretty boring. Plus I hate my sister, she’s such a suck up. Also Persephone gets on my nerves.”

“Your mother?”

“I call her Persephone. The parental bond has been severely attenuated by the fact that she keeps cutting off my allowance.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, I should probably tell you something.” Melinoë screwed up her nose and scrutinized her black-lacquered nails.

“What?”

“Well, I kind of promised I wouldn’t tell, but now that I’ve met you I like you so I probably will.”

“OK. What?”

Melinoë got up and put her head around the door, then returned to the bed and sat next to Angela.

“Persephone brought you here under false pretences. You’re not Hera and Zeus’s daughter. The real Angelia is violent and crazy so she got banished to an island when she was five years old. But Hera’s coming to visit for the wine festival in a few weeks and she said wants to see her daughter. Persephone’s been feeding her lines for years about how well Angelia is doing and now she’s terrified of Hera finding out she’s been lying all that time.”

“So I’m going to be the substitute?”

“Exactly.”

“But why would she lie about it?”

“Persephone’s really wants to move to Olympus, because it’s more prestigious, but she can’t do that without Hera’s blessing. Also, if Hera finds out about Angelia’s banishment she’ll be mad. I mean, like, really mad. She’ll have a conniption fit.”

 

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Bruiser

 

“We’ll, I’m mad myself actually,” sputtered Angela.

“Yeah, but you don’t count. Hera is the Queen of Goddesses. Plus, you haven’t seen vindictiveness until you’ve seen her at work. Persephone’s terrified of her, and she’s hard to scare.”  

“So, what am I supposed to do?” Angela asked. 

Melinoë shrugged.

“Just chill. Hang out with me. I’ll show you around. It’ll be fun.” Melinoë smiled, turned into a tabby cat, curled up and went to sleep. 

Angela sat on the hard couch staring at the cat-girl wondering exactly what she’d got herself into. 

 

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One of those days

Angela Kirby Goes to Hell

[This is chapter two of a serial novel. Read the previous chapter here].

Angela was caught up in a cool flurry of feathers and honey-flavored air. She closed her eyes and her breath, half terrified, half thrilled. She was filled with thoughts of her imminent ascension to the throne in the Underworld. What would the job involve? Would she mainly do charity work and ceremonial duties among the Damned? Would she have a big wedding with the Prince of Darkness? If he was ugly she could just be a Queen who ruled single-handedly and had a series of demonic courtiers like Queen Elizabeth. She fell into a pleasant reverie.

It was bitingly cold and windy when she opened her eyes again. She seemed to be in some kind of cage made of four yellow bars. Stretching her neck up, she was alarmed to see that Thanatos had become a giant falcon and was holding her gently in a talon. When she looked down, Earth lay so far beneath them so that she could see the curvature of the planet. They were currently over a big ocean—the Pacific?–and she could just make out little islands and atolls with frilly white fringes. As she gazed, they moved towards a line of darkness that signalled they were entering the ‘dark side’ of the planet.

 

Atlantic view

 

Crossing into the darkness, she became even colder and her teeth started chattering. Noticing that one of Thanatos’ belly feathers had come loose, she pulled it down and wrapped it around her. It was extremely warm and she felt much more comfortable. Digging into her bag, she took out her smartphone and made a short video of the darkening Earth.

Suddenly, there was a prolonged, shimmering flash of fluorescent green similar in hue to the Northern Lights. Thanatos wobbled a little with the force of some great wind and Angela held tight to one of his talons with her left hand and to the feather with her right. After the flash, everything went completely dark—no stars, no sun, no little glow-worm carpet of electric lights down there. This time it was an inner chill that made her shiver, the fear that everything had disappeared forever.

Through the void she gradually  perceived a faint grey shimmering beneath them. There must have been light coming from somewhere, though she could not identify the source. She realized after some time gazing uncomprehending at the shimmering that it was liquid.

“Oceanus,” Thanatos explained, “We are at the eastern edge of Hades’ realm.”

Angela’s eyes adjusted and Thanatos flew closer to the surface of the sea so that she could smell its salty, brackish scent and hear the bell-like cries of unfamiliar seabirds. They skimmed the shoreline and flew over a great dark forest, absolutely silent, through which flowed a river of fire. She got out her phone to film it.

 

Lava_river
Image from taken from here

 

“That’s the river Phlegethon—and this region is Tartarus, home of souls doomed to torment. The Titans live there,” he swooped over three volcanoes light grey smoke billowed up into the air for miles around and made Angela cough.

They continued over high, forbidding icy mountains and deep quarries, over the river Acheron and a huge flat plain that Tartarus called Asphodel Meadows. It was brighter there, and Angela could make out groves of trees and fields of wild flowers. In fact, it seemed to be brightening all the time and when she remarked on this, Thanatos explained that it was due to a system of mirrors the people called a helioscope, which diverted sunlight from the Overland to the Underworld.

Swerving to catch a serendipitous zephyr, Thanatos flew over a different river, which he called Lethe, which meant Oblivion. Everyone who drank from it immediately forgot their earthly life. Across the river, the land was one large meadow, very bright and pleasant, with rolling green hills, beautiful gardens and sparkling lakes. As Thanatos swooped closer to the long grasses, Angela heard the sound of music and noticed a herd of white horses galloping.

“Not horses, Centaurs,” Thanatos corrected her. “They like to play their lyres when they run. This is the Elysian Fields, the happy resting place of blessed souls.”

Already, they were back at a beach but some way out, in the blue-green deeps of Oceanus, several islands jutted up into the sky. Forested and steep, they were encircled by colorful birds and here and there Angela could see a white sandy beach far below. The water was so clear that she could even see dolphins and whales swimming in it.

 

Phi phi
Actually the islands of Phi Phi

 

“These are the Isles of the Blessed,” Thanatos said, “Where only a few souls live—those who have been reincarnated three times and each time attained the distinction of blessedness. Not even I may approach them without censure. We must turn back.”

And, after describing three circles, he returned back the way he had come. They flew over the Elysian Fields and the Asphodel Meadows. When Thanatos approached the murky grey waters of the River Styx, he adjusted his wings to slow down and prepare for landing. There was a pier on one bank, crowded by men, women and children. Approaching the queue and leading them with a golden torch was a tall young man wearing a winged cap, a cloak, winged sandals and very little else.

“That’s Hermes Psychopomopos,” Thanatos said, shaking himself back into the form of a winged boy. “He leads souls here, to the ferry.”

 

Hermes

 

“He’s not wearing very much,” Angela said, “Actually no one is.” A horrifying thought struck her. “I’m not going to have to dress like that, am I?”

Thanatos ignored the question and pulled her along towards the river.

 With her free hand, she took out her smartphone and filmed the mass of interesting humanity. “What have they got in their mouths?” she whispered as they walked briskly along the outskirts of the crowd.

“They keep a coin under their tongues to pay the ferryman.”  

“Ew, that’s disgusting. Imagine how many people have touched that coin! Poor him, too, having to take the coin covered with spit. Ugh.”

The pair finally burst through to the ferry dock and Thanatos pointed to Charon the ferryman. Angela immediately saw that this was a character who would not be fazed by coins covered in saliva. He was maybe the most revolting person she had ever seen in her life, including her uncle Ralph. His hair was like an eagle’s nest—a sprawling, bristling, dirt-encrusted mess. His eyebrows were stupendous, hanging over the deep, smoldering bituminous pits of his eyes. His nose was bulbous and red, covered with warts. His skin was crusty and yellow, like cooked wax paper. His lips were unpleasantly red and emitted a smell like compost. He was dressed in rags, and they weren’t clean rags. His feet were black and swollen.

“Fee,” he growled at Thanatos.

“No fee,” Thanatos said. “Hades’ orders.”

“For this juvenile skunk?” Charon folded his arms sceptically.

“Hey!” Angela squeaked.

“She is coming aboard. Hades’ orders.”

Charon narrowed his eyes and glared at Thanatos, who stared back at him. The crowd behind murmured and pushed.

“No fee, no ferry,” Charon growled.

Thanatos sighed.

Fine. Here’s your fee—but Hades won’t be happy,” Thanatos picked a silk purse out of a pocket in his tunic and thrust it at the ferryman.

Charon hocked and spat, then laughed like cold water squeezing down a hair-clogged drain.

Hades, ha! More like that coal digger of his wife. She’s up to something rank, no doubt. I don’t know what things are coming to when she brings living ”

“Get on the ferry before he changes his mind,” Thanatos whispered and pushed Angela onto a very small and unstable wooden dinghy.

 

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Detail of Charon and Psyche by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

 

The river was thick and sluggish, as if comprised of something thicker than water. Pale shapes moved lazily in the liquid beneath the boat. As there was no breeze or air movement, Charon’s unusual fragrance settled over the whole boat. Angela felt dizzy from holding her breath. But they got to the other bank eventually.

Stumbling out of the boat and onto the other pier, Angela saw a stone wall and a large gate. Following Thanatos to the entrance, she wonderingly looked at a big rock on the left side of the entrance. It seemed untidy. She was about to ask Thanatos about it when it moved—a triangular section of it twitched a little. She gave a little scream and the whole rock suddenly came apart and reassembled as a terrifying beast. Through the mist of her fear, she saw that it was behaving somewhat like a dog. There was a tail-like thing wagging happily, though when she looked closer she saw that it was a long king cobra. It had three large heads, each one with a tongue hanging out goofily as it sprang about at Thanatos’ feet,

“Cerebos sit!” Thanatos commanded.

Obligingly, very seriously, Cerebos sat, the cobra still wagging.

“Good dog!” Thanatos flung him something that looked a lot like raw meat. The middle head snatched the morsel, revealing a set of very sharp teeth in the process. Appalled, Angela hurried in through the gates, followed by her guide.

 

T16.2Hekate
Herakles and Hekate nicking the Hell Hound

 

“Can you believe the nerve of that ferryman?” Angela muttered to Thanataos as he strode through a Greek-looking town resplendent with marble buildings and fountains, “Just you wait until he finds out that I’m going to be queen around here. I can’t wait to see the look on his face,” she cackled.

“Mmm,” Thanatos said. “Ah, look, here’s the agora.”

“The what?”

“The—how you say?—market square. It is the same your courthouse. The judges sit there all day eating sunflower seeds with eagle eyes. I must show you to them.”

“Why?”

“They will make a shouting otherwise,” said Thanatos, chewing his lower lip. “They are the big men here.” After a thoughtful pause he said, “Keep quiet, OK? It’s better if I do the talking.”

Sure enough, sitting in the dappled shade of three bay laurel trees, three elderly men sat on benches carved from translucent white marble. They were dressed in white woollen cloaks and wreaths of hammered gold. They were gesticulating energetically and peeling husks off sunflowers as they chatted together. When they caught sight of Thanatos and Angela approaching, they fell silent and brushed husks off their laps, frowning with proud dignity.

 

underworld_judges_vase

 

“Joy and health to you, lords!” Thanatos said, with a heartiness that did not come naturally to him. “Let it be a joyous day for you.”

   They nodded coolly, and looked pointedly at Angela.

“Lords,” said Thanatos, “I present to you Angela, daughter of Gerry Smith of Wichita.”

They looked inquiringly at each other. The oldest judge stood up, with the help of a polished walking stick.

“Wichita?” he said. “Is that one of the lesser islands of the Cyclades?”

“Very near, Lord Rhadamanthus,” murmured Thanatos.

“You, girl, come near to me,” said the judge. “So I can look at you.”

Angela approached, trembling a little.

Rhadamanthus was as straight and stony as a pillar, his features unyielding, his eyes (though watery) sharp and critical. Nothing escaped his notice.

“This is a living soul!” he declared. “What does it mean?”

The other two judges rumbled with displeasure.

“Hades’ orders,” Thanatos bowed.

The fattest judge cleared his throat and extended his hand.

“Where’s the royal decree?” he said. “If Hades ordered it, there must be a decree.”

“I have a permit undersigned by Lady Persephone, Lord Minos.”

Minos exchanged a meaning glance with the thin, beaky judge at his side.

Thanatos proferred a papyrus scroll, which Rhadamanthus took reluctantly and unrolled.

 

Esteemed Judges,

The soul before you, one Angela Kirby daughter of Gerry Kirby of Wichita, has full license to enter the realm of the Dead for an indefinite period to be decided by Hades, Lord of the Dead. No argument on the matter may be entered into.

Regards,

Lady Persepephone

 

“This is highly irregular,” muttered Minos.

The beaky judge spoke in a dry, cracked voice. “The law is very clear. No living soul may enter the realm without the signed permission of Lord Hades himself. This was decided to avoid a repeat of the Herakles debacle.”

“Right you are, Aeacus,” said Minos. “It makes a mockery of the system! What is the purpose of having us here if any warm-blooded worm can slither in?”

Excuse me,” Angela snapped.

“Shhh,” Thanatos hissed.

“My colleagues are right,” Rhadamanthus said. “Without a document signed by Hades himself, I’m afraid the girl may not enter. We need to uphold the standards of justice and right.”

“My Lords,” Thanatos bowed. “All praise to you for your unbending adherence to the Law. Hades will be happy to hear it. You have passed this test. King Hades wanted to know what your reaction would be if I tried to smuggle in a hot-breather. I congratulate you all, and My Lord Hades begged of me to present you with a gift in exchange for the peerless practices.”

Thanatos produced three bags and presented one each to the three old men.

Minos and Aeacus opened them up and their faces brightened as they fingered gold coins. Rhadamanthus, however, handed his back.

“We cannot accept these,” he glared at the other two, who looked crestfallen. “We do our duty to the people of Hades not for monetary gain but for Glory alone.”

Scowling, Minos and Aeacus handed theirs back too.

“Praises,” murmured Thanatos. “Hades will know of your reply, believe me. We must now go to him directly to inform him of your great integrity. I’m sure he will ask Orpheus to compose a song singing your virtues to the skies.”

With that, Thanatos grabbed Angela by the hand and hurried off down the street towards a great palace on a hill.

 

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Mr. and Mrs. Hades at home, from the Colossal Krater from Altamura

Publishing with Unbound, an Interview with Emilia Leese

Finding a home for your book can be difficult, especially if you want readers to have that old-school sensory thrill of riffling through pages and inhaling that new-ink smell. For an author, one of life’s gnarliest challenges is convincing a publisher that your idea will fly. 

Unbound is a new publishing platform that gives authors a chance to prove their projects are economically viable. Using the power of social media and crowdfunding, an author is able to collect readers’ pledges in advance of publication. When and if enough pledges are received, the traditional publishing process kicks in and the author can relax  while Unbound edits, produces and distributes the book.

Emi 1
Author Emilia Leese

It sounds beautifully straightforward and simple, but is it really? I decided to talk to Unbound author Emilia Leese to find out. She and Eva Charalambides are the co-authors of Think Like a Vegan: What Everyone Can Learn from Vegan Ethics (learn more here).  They have successfully funded the book and are now waiting to see it printed. Emilia kindly agreed to answer a few questions that may be helpful for other authors seeking a new and exciting publishing avenue.

How did you decide to choose Unbound as a publisher for Think Like a Vegan? Had you tried others beforehand, or was this the first one you were drawn to?

I had heard of Unbound from Cerys Matthews during her show on BBC Radio Six Music one morning and the concept sounded brilliant, but we didn’t contact them immediately because we thought we should go with small, specialty presses first.

Initially, we contacted various other small presses. We were in discussions with two. One told us they had no time to market our book and insisted on a title they believed would make the book sell itself. We believed the title the press preferred was not enticing and didn’t convey what the book was about. Plus they sent us a contract that just didn’t work, neither for them nor us. In fact, I spent several hours fixing it for them (I’m a corporate finance lawyer, so contracts are kinda my thing). I wonder if they’ll use that form now?! The second press was keen, but didn’t communicate effectively and we were left hanging many times over. Who needs that?

When we contacted Unbound, they were enthusiastic, keen, incredible communicators and were interested in working with us, including in helping us craft a great title. So, we decided that although we were going to have to do a lot of work to have a successful campaign, it would be worth it. The small presses were going to do very little in terms of marketing. So, it was a matter of us putting a lot of work up front, while still retaining creative control. And with Unbound, it also was a much more collaborative environment because they were vested in our having a successful crowdfunding campaign as much as we were. With a level field in terms of interests, then creativity on both sides can soar and benefit the project as a whole. 

What sort of information should authors include in their pitches? For example, what do think persuaded Unbound that Think Like a Vegan was a project they’d like to support? 

The pitch for Unbound was very much like all the other pitches in terms of content. But their focus is on authors identifying their audience. And frankly, that’s a good thing to do no matter what publisher one approaches or even if there’s no publisher. Really thinking about your audience and who would buy your work is something critical for writers and for anyone trying to get their work or product to market. 

Knowing that the crowdfunding was all up to you, what were your strategies and resources? Did Unbound provide any advice or support at this stage? 

Unbound held a crowdfunding workshop where they explained the process, gave examples of what works and doesn’t. They have a marketing manager who was in contact with us often and to whom we could consult for advice throughout the process. The data to which authors have access to monitor their campaign is also pretty detailed and interesting. So you felt in control and simultaneously very much supported.

In terms of strategies, I had had experience with crowdfunding in the context of a small business, but also in the corporate finance sphere. The goals and strategies are more or less the same. The quantum changes, of course, alongside the risks. But the aims are the same. Our strategy was to hit the ground running when the campaign launched publicly. We built up momentum by personally contacting friends and family first, building a base, and then launching to the public. We mined all our contacts and tried to keep in touch with the public through social media in an engaging way, and by being ourselves. Unbound also has its own marketing channels, including a subscriber newsletter and social media. In fact, their newsletter is how a BBC producer found out about the book and invited us to be on BBC World News just before Christmas (you can watch the interview here)

How much time and effort, more or less, did you put into the crowdfunding campaign?

A lot. It was a full time job practically. 

What did you learn from the Unbound crowdfunding experience?

The incredible kindness and generosity of people. That is the biggest and best takeaway from this experience. Eva and I were moved to tears just about daily from the outpouring of support, kind words, generosity and encouragement. And sometimes from the most unexpected places. 

I loved the fact that, starting from quite a small amount, pledgors were guaranteed to receive a copy of the book. And then with higher pledges they were eligible to receive the book in different formats and fantastic prizes related to the theme of your book, for example personal video-conferenced consultations on veganism, or a ticket to a vegan Burns Night supper, or a chef-cooked Italian vegan meal. Did pledgors take you up on these offers? How did it go?

The minimum was £10 for an e-book, so yes, I suppose that’s more or less $10 USD. And every pledgor will have their name printed in the Supporter list at the back of the book. The rewards we offered maximized our presence and skills. There’s a couple of reasons for that. First, who needs one more tote bag? People don’t need or want things, they want experiences. So how could we weave our skills into this endeavor? Second, the costs associated with rewards we provided were low, meaning more of the pledge would go to the funding pot. If a reward would cost £X to make, then the pledge would only provide amount minus £X to the pot. So, we got creative.

Yes, pledgors took us up on these rewards. The Burns Night Supper was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, we postponed the next supper club – a very special Ithailian (Italian-Thai) fusion, supper club we were meant to be hosting in early April. And we expect the other rewards will be claimed in due course.   

basket-of-fruits-and-vegetables

At what stage in the process did Unbound offer you a contract? 

Only once the crowdfunding campaign hits 100% does Unbound offer a contract. 

Where is the book now? Do you have an estimated time for publishing? 

We are now in the early stages of editing. And have been told the book will come out in May 2021. 

Would you do it again? If so, what might you do differently? 

Yes, I suppose so. But with some distance so I can recover from the effort. I don’t think I would do anything differently, actually. 

For people who didn’t contribute to funding but who would like to read your book, are there ways they can purchase it?

Yes. Anyone can still support and pre-order the book now from the Unbound site. Once the book is published, it will be available everywhere books are sold, including your local bookshop, the Unbound website, Amazon and so on. 

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The Way of Socks

“Thanatos, get out of my bedroom!”

As soon as the shriek reached Thomasina Kirby in the living room where she was folding laundry, that good woman rolled her eyes and flicked a towel severely.

“Playing those blasted video games again instead of doing her homework,” she muttered. “Sooner or later I’ll have to say something to that young lady.” But then, seeing a single unpaired sock, Thomasina’s mind wandered. Somewhere on Earth, she mused, there was almost certainly an enormous clot of orphan socks, a kind of giant garbage patch where misplaced strays had been drawn by some kind of planetary magnetism. The question was, how could one locate the exact spot?

 

4256

 

Meanwhile, Thomasina’s twelve-year-old daughter Angela was sitting on her desk chair glaring at a very tall man in a diaphanous tunic who was stooping awkwardly by her wardrobe door. Everything about him irritated her:  his fine reddish-brown hair and beard, his gentle smile, the enormous swan-like wings sprouting from his back, even the butterflies that fluttered about him like a living cloud of yellow, violet, red and pink. What’s more, there was a distinctive herbal scent emanating from him that she found utterly repulsive, like honey mixed with eucalyptus.

“I already told you it’s the wrong house.”

Thanatos inclined his head, as if demurring.

“However,” he said in halting English, “The name of you is Herald Kirby from the polis of,” he checked a tablet he held in his hand, “Wichita, Kansas?”

“Ugh,” said Angela, rolling her eyes in a manner not unlike her mother’s, “My name is Angela Smith, which is I suppose somehow related to the Greek word for herald—but that’s neither here nor there. Wichita is not a polis, it’s a normal town in twenty-first century America and you have zero business being in my bedroom.”

“Angela,” he inclined his head, thinking. “Yes, it is very like: Ἀγγελία—it is sure that you are the woman child I seek,” he looked happy.

“It is not sure,” Angela retorted.

The creature looked hurt and Angela, being essentially kind-hearted, regretted her harsh tone.

 

Hypnos_Thanatos_BM_Vase_D56
Thanatos and Hypnos carry Sarpedon away from the battlefield outside Troy

 

“Mr. Thanatos,” she said gently but firmly, “I’m sorry but there’s been some kind of mix-up. This—” she waved a hand dismissively in his direction, “Isn’t done these days. There’s a whole different procedure.”

“Procedure?”

“Yes. We don’t go in for all that winged-creature-underworld stuff. We have hospitals and modern medicine and morphine.”

“Morpheus, my dearest nephew, son of Hypnos!”

“No,” said Angela, “Morphine. A drug. A chemical structure. Nothing to do with your bizarre family.”

His wings drooped in disappointment.  

 “Besides,” Angela continued, “If you just look at me it’s totally obvious I’m in perfectly good health. I’m still a child, technically, and children only die if they one: get in an accident or two: are unlucky enough to get some terrible illness or three: commit suicide.”

He examined her closely, with large, dark, serious eyes.

“The woman-child is dreadful pale,” he said hopefully, “And stomach bloated as if with the famine.”

Excuse me,” Angela said tugging at her T-shirt. “I’m extremely healthy. I just saw the doctor last month and he said I am well within the normal range. Just because you Athenians subsisted on nettles and moldy olives doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”

Thanatos drew himself up a little.

“My relations sup only on nectar and sweetest ambrosia.”

 

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Hebe serving dinner

 

“Whatever. The point is, your usual…clients, let’s say…probably all had malnutrition,” she sniffed. “And worms, if they lived to my age at all. Also, why are you still here? I’ve got things to do.” Huffily, she swiveled her chair around to read her schoolbook and put her earbuds in, hoping that he would vanish, as he had last time.

 Unfortunately, five minutes later she turned around to see that he was reclining on her bed flicking through a copy of Teen Vogue.

“Get off my bed!” she growled, with convincing enough fury that he scrambled up, feathers flying.

“Ugh, I’ll have to wash my bedspread to get that smell off it now,” she moaned

There were three sharp knocks on the door before it opened a crack, to allow better hearing.

“That’s quite enough, young lady. Turn that game off and do your homework.”

“I’m trying to mom, but—” Angela suddenly wondered how exactly she would explain.

“Sorry,” she corrected herself. “I’ll turn the game off now.”

“Any more shouting and I’m confiscating that computer for a day,” Thomasina threatened before shutting the door again.

Angela looked over toward the wardrobe and noticed that there was a shimmering transparent silhouette where Thanatos had been. Gradually, the transparency became colored and three-dimensional—the same annoying demi-god.

“Nice, very brave of you,” Angela sneered.

Thanatos raised his eyebrows proudly.

“You are mistaken, I do not fear the woman. I vanished in order to consult with the King of the Dead.”

 

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Hades and Cerberus in the Museum of Archeology in Crete

 

“About me?”

“Yes. It seems that you were thinking an incorrect thought.”

“What?”

“You thought I came to bring you the terminus of blissful oblivion.”

“Hmmph. Is that what you call it?”

“In fact, my task is otherwise. I have come to take you to receive your realm, O Princess.”

Angela looked at him with greater attention.

“Princess?”

He knelt on the floor, keeping his distance to avoid kicks. 

“Yes, Princess Angelia, Daughter of Hera and Zeus!” he bowed his head respectfully.

“Well,” said Angela, who wasn’t displeased, “I’m actually the daughter of Thomasina and Gerry Smith. Though I admit it might be nice to be a goddess.” She twirled a pen thoughtfully between her fingers.

Thanatos lifted his head to gaze wonderingly at her.

“The mortals? They are not your parents!” He said it so solemnly that she felt not only inclined but also compelled to believe it.

“How’s that?” she said.

“When you were an infant, your father Zeus entrusted your care to five lovely nymphs. But you were very…unruly and they could not prevent you from doing mischief. At the age of nine months you snuck into your mother Hera’s house, stole her valuables and handed them over to Europa. She was so angry she could have killed you, but you cleverly hid here in this place. Unfortunately, ever since, you have been unclean.”

 

K4.7Hera
Even satyr music can’t stop her thinking about that little brat

 

“What do you mean?” she sniffed her armpits. “I shower daily!”

“The day you came, the woman in the house was in labor. You were besmirched with the pollution of birth.”

“So that would have been…when Tori was born! I always thought she didn’t seem that much younger than me.”

“And the next week you were taken by the mortal guardian to a funeral procession—so you were tainted by the pollution of death.”

“Grandad. Anything else? Did I fall into a dungheap maybe? Eat human flesh?”

“No, the pollution upon you is very much worse than those trifles.”

“Right. Thanks a lot. So, why are you here again?”

“My lord the king has asked me to collect you for purification in the waters of Acherusia Lake.”

“Which is where?”

“In the realm of the Underworld. And then, after the ceremony, you shall receive your title.”

“So…I would be in the Underworld…but not actually dead?”

“Of course. After the purification, you would enjoy immortality.”

“I see.” Angela flicked the pen very quickly between her thumb and forefinger, making it drum against her leg.

“So, tell me more about the position though. Do I get a crown? And a palace? And beautiful dresses, stuff like that?”

“All, your Majesty.”

The ‘Majesty’ bit took her by surprise. She glanced at him to check whether he was making fun of her, but everything seemed to be in order.

 

Hades-Persephone-underworld-interior-kylix-Greek-Vulci-c-430-bce
Cheers m’dear!

 

She glanced at the textbook on her desk, which provided a blow-by-blow description of the process of photosynthesis, and her eyes blurred over. She thought about her family—her mortal family, that is–and imagined leaving them. It seemed all right. Tori could have her clothes. She always wore them without asking, anyway. And her mom probably wouldn’t mind. She’d never even bothered to tell her she was adopted, anyway. As for Gerry, he probably wouldn’t notice. In fact, he’d probably be happy that the utilities bill was going down. No more nagging about thirty-minute showers!

“OK, sign me up,” she said. “Do I need to bring anything?”

“All will be provided, your Majesty.”

“Then let’s get this show on the road.”

They were gone in a dazzling slow-motion flap of white swan wings. The displaced air knocked a glass off the table so it shattered on the floor.

 

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“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” a voice cried from without. In a few seconds, the door opened suddenly and Thomasina burst in, looking with fury at the broken glass on the floor. “What in the world?” she murmured.

“Angela?”

No window, so she couldn’t have got out that way. She tiptoed around the broken glass and checked in the wardrobe and under the bed. Nothing. Except a strange medicinal smell. 

That will need a wash,” she said, yanking the bedspread off the bed.

“Funny about daughters. One minute they’re appearing out of the blue, next minute they’ve gone the way of socks.”

 

white-clipart-socks

The Guangzhou Bag Swap

In hindsight, Sarah may have seen a handsome guy pulling a purple suitcase through the departures lounge that morning, but if she did, it made no lasting impression. The people around her did not register as individuals but rather as elements of the great shimmering international swell, the commotion and spectacle of Guangzhou Airport. They were all chorus members in a great Broadway show in which she was the heroine, a small-town Australian girl preparing to step into the great adventure of her life—her ‘overseas experience’.

Just that morning she’d said hooroo to her granddad in Merimbula, taken a short hop to Sydney then flown from Sydney to Guangzhou, which she knew nothing about except it was in China. It was the first foreign country she’d ever been to (if going to the airport counted), so it felt as if she’d already gone through the looking glass and landed in a strange alternative world.

Two hours later, seated at Gate A129, she was writing assiduously in her diary: In transit at Guangzhou. Only two legs to go! Can’t wait to finally see New York…so many things I want to do there. Top five: Central Park, Bloomingdale’s, eat a hotdog, see a Broadway Show. Oh, and maybe meet someone AMAZING and have a beautiful summer romance. I hope the family I’m working for is nice and let me have heaps of free time.

She chewed on the end of her pencil, wondering what that ‘someone amazing’ might be like. Would he have red hair? Or dark? Would he be more artistic or sporty? On the whole, she preferred artistic. Muscles did nothing for her. What kind of music would he be into? Anything, probably, except country. She was rudely shaken out of this interesting reverie by an announcement:

“Calling passenger Sarah Jellico, please come to Gate A126. This is the final announcement for passenger Sarah Jellico.”

Looking at her boarding pass in dismay, she realized she’d been waiting at the wrong gate. Grabbing her old backpack, she scrambled to reach the gate just in time.  

 

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***

 

In row 15, Alex Huang (the owner of a purple suitcase) sat uncomfortably wedged between a giant man who smelled like cabbage and an elderly woman who poked him with her elbow every time she held a newspaper crossword up to her face. He was ready for the flight to be over when it hadn’t even begun. There was some hold-up. Why was it taking so long?

The reason for the delay suddenly came hurtling down the aisle, apologizing blithely as she accidentally smacked other passengers in the face with her bag. Although Alex had to admit that the girl was technically attractive, with honey-colored curls and smattering of freckles across her nose, his main feeling was annoyance. As she flung her bag in the overhead locker, three books fell out, one of them hitting the crossword lady on the knee. This involved further delay and Alex (along with the rest of the passengers) watched with irritation as she scrambled to collect her scattered belongings.

To his dismay, Alex noticed that the only empty seat on the plane was the one in front of him. Sure enough, this human disaster area plonked herself down and immediately activated the ‘recline’ button. Now Alex was not only hemmed in to the left and right, but a cloud of blonde hair was in his face, tickling his nose. Admittedly it smelled quite nice—she used some kind of fruity shampoo—but that was not the point. The point was that his patience was near breaking point.

“Miss? Excuse me, miss,” he said tensely.

There was no reply. Peering over the seat, he saw that she was wearing earbuds. Tentatively, he tapped her on the shoulder. She twitched as if shaking off a fly but otherwise did not react. Boiling with rage at this point, he pinched her arm quite hard.

“Ouch!” she squealed and leapt to her feet, tossing her head and glaring at him in an imperious way. She looked, he thought, a bit like Boticelli’s Venus if she’d recently been stung by a bee. By now the entire cabin was staring at her, no longer simply irritated but also afraid.

“What did you do that for, ya mongrel?”

“Sorry?” Alex said, confused.

She took her earbuds out.

“What did you say?” she growled.

“I said ‘Sorry?’” Alex replied.

“Apology NOT accepted.”

“Miss!” said a flight attendant hastening along the aisle. “Sit down please miss.”

“I was sitting down until this drongo assaulted me,” she pointed a finger at Alex. 

“I would ask that you be seated immediately miss. The plane is about to take off.”

“Did you hear what I said though? This dingleberry assaulted me! How would you like it if it happened to you? What about the global hastag-Me-Too movement?”

“Is this true?” the stewardess asked the general seating area. “Did he assault her?” Everybody shook their head.

“Cowards!” Sarah hissed at them. She then addressed the stewardess. “I’d like to be seated elsewhere. I don’t feel comfortable staying near my abuser.”

“That is not possible,” replied the stewardess, who was now joined by a bulkier associate. “Sit down now or you’ll be escorted from the plane.”

“Throw her off!” a voice called out from row 22.

“Fine,” Sarah huffed, hastily sitting down, “But I’m complaining to the airline. This is a serious violation of my human rights. I’m going to Tweet about it right now in fact!”

“Please don’t use electronic devices while the plane is taxiing for take-off.”

“Since when is that a rule?”

“Miss…” the bulkier steward growled. She hastily turned her phone off.

“And ensure that your seat-back is upright.”

“Fascists,” Sarah hissed, as her seat-back twanged into a vertical position.

 As soon as the plane was in the air, Sarah leaned her seat back as far as she could. Alex closed his eyes and pretended not to notice, though a seething hatred burned whitely in his soul.

 

PRI_75889478

***

 

At John F. Kennedy airport, the crowds were immense and buzzing. Sarah had never seen anything like it before. People from everywhere flocking like birds to this great cultural hub. Despite that little unpleasantness on the plane, she was now in a fantastic mood. Here at last! The air itself seemed alive with possibility.

“I’m actually here,” she whispered.

The immigration line was very long but she didn’t even mind. As she gazed at all the faces, the time passed quickly. Then, over in the U.S. Citizens line, she noticed the handsome Chinese guy who’d been sitting behind her. Grimacing, she thought it was a shame that such a poisonous snake was so good looking. His T-shirt hugged his torso as if it had been painted on, and his biceps were annoyingly bulky. Probably spent hours in the gym looking at himself, what a wanker.

“Next!”

Sarah strode forward, handing the border guard her passport.

“How long will you be staying in the United States?”

“One year.”

“What is the nature of your work?”

“I’ll be nannying for a family in Manhattan,” she said. “The Dixons. Do you know them?”

“No ma’am. May I see your working visa?”

She handed it over.

“They seem like really nice people. So goodlooking. The dad is loaded. And the kids are unbelievably cute. The daughter—she’s five—has these Shirley Temple ringlets–”

“What is the address you will be staying at?”

She gave the address.

“It’s really near Central Park. I’m hoping to see it while I’m there, maybe go see Cats. I’m a big fan of the theater, which is why New Yo—”

The border guard handed her back her passport.

“Next!”

 

The final step was getting her suitcase. Skipping over to the conveyor belt, she once more spotted that vile excrescence who’d been sitting behind her.

“Well, at least I’ll never have to see him again,” she thought huffily before grabbing a silver Samsonite suitcase off the conveyor belt and hauling it away to the exit.

Waiting for her in the foyer with a sign reading ‘Miss Sarah Jellico’ was a man in a fancy chauffeur uniform.

“Hello!” she beamed. “I’m Sarah.”

“Hello,” he said. “May I see your identification please?”

“Er…OK,” she showed him her passport. He examined it carefully, then nodded. “This way.”

 

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***

When Alex finally made it to his mother’s house in Queens, he was exhausted. Much to his mother’s disappointment, he didn’t even want dinner.

“You OK, honey? You have a fever?” She touched his forehead. It was unlike her son to turn down clay pot rice.

“No thanks ma, I’m not hungry. I’m just really tired. There was an idiot on the plane in front of me and—well, I’d rather just go to bed.”

“Shall I bring you chicken noodle soup?”

“No, I’m not hungr—” seeing the steely determination in her eyes, he immediately corrected himself, “Well, can you make some ginger milk pudding?”

She nodded, satisfied, and patted him on the cheek.

He hauled his suitcase upstairs. For some reason it seemed much heavier than usual. Maybe he really was getting sick. Considering all the weight training he’d been doing, he can’t have lost so much conditioning so quickly!

When he got to his room, he went to unlock the suitcase and noticed the key didn’t fit. Then he realized that the suitcase wasn’t even locked. Flinging open the lid, he stood and stared for a full ten seconds.

His subsequent cry of anguish echoed throughout the house. Twenty seconds later, his mother was knocking at his door.

“Alex? Are you OK honey?”

Alex gritted his teeth.

“It’s OK, ma, I just stubbed my toe.”

In fact, this was true. Realizing he had taken someone else’s luggage had been the last straw. It prompted him to kick the wall with a bare foot.

Groaning quietly, he stared at the open suitcase and wondered what to do. Inspecting the exterior, he could see no name tag. The only thing to do was to search the contents for something that might yield clues.

The first thing he noticed was that the owner clearly identified as a woman. The reason the suitcase had weighed so much was that it was packed with a salon’s worth of haircare products. There was also a staggering number of bras, lacy underwear, dresses and five pairs of shoes. Other items included a battered looking stuffed koala bear, five packets of Licorice Allsorts, a book about Early Childhood Education, a Hello, Dolly! poster, a pair of hot-pink rollerblades and a Garfield alarm clock. Inspecting the front pocket, he found a small hardcover book with Vincent van Gogh’s A Starry Night on the cover. Opening it, he realized it was a diary.

 

renaissance_paintings_starry_night

***

Sarah felt a bit glum. The chauffeur, Mr. Maduro, had been extremely serious. At first, she assumed he was just shy and therefore resolved to charm him with enthusiastic chat. She’d gushed about how much she was looking forward to meeting the family and baking cheesymite scrolls and pavlovas. She wanted to teach the kids all kinds of games and songs. Then she’d tried to get his opinion of good places to hang out in the city—bars, clubs, shows, things of that nature.

Finally, he’d cut her short.

“Miss, I think you have the wrong idea. I’m gonna tell you this once and it’s just between you and me: This will not be a vacation for you. You will not be going to bars. You will not be fraternizing with the family. There is a chef—you will not be allowed in the kitchen. You are here to work, that’s it. Understand?”

“But—” she started to speak, then stopped. Clearly this man was disaffected. Perhaps he’d had a bad childhood or something. There was no use talking with someone like that, they’d see the worst in everything.

“Oh,” she nodded, “I see.”

“Yes,” he said, warming to his subject. “You have to think of the family like a big company, OK? Like Walmart. You’re an employee. You do your job. You do not share anything personal, you do not show weakness of any kind or they will cut you down, squeeze the blood out of you and drink it like vampires.”

“Sheesh. That seems a bit harsh.”

“Harsh?” he laughed bitterly. “Yes, it’s harsh, believe me. Watch your back. Don’t give them any excuse to take advantage.”

“Um, but, Mr. Maduro? With all due respect, I’m the nanny. I’m working with children so I have to be a bit emotional and personal. Also, the whole reason I came here was to see the Big Apple! How could I possibly miss Broadway?” she snorted.

“Just wait,” he said ominously, shaking his head. “You’ll see.”

Now here she was in a bedroom that was small, spotless and completely white. It had zero personality. Instead of having a view over Central Park, it looked out on a brick wall that was also white. On her bed, she found a printed and laminated letter that read as follows:

 

Information for Nanny

Welcome to your base for the next few months. Please make yourself at home.

Before you begin your duties, we ask that you familiarize yourself with some of the house rules, which must be followed without deviation.

 

She yawned and put the letter on the chest of drawers, deciding to read it later. Right now, this room needed some pizzaz, like for example a Hello, Dolly! poster. She took her suitcase and went to open it but found she couldn’t. After a couple of minutes spent trying to pry it open, she gave up and gave the thing a closer look. At that point she noticed a tag attached to the handle.

“Alex Huang/#3D 4565 Princeton Street/Queens. Phone: 808-692-1212”

“Oh. Nooooo,” she whispered. “Not possible. No.”

She went to get her cellphone out of her backpack and realized it had no battery power. Then she went to charge it but realized the plug didn’t fit in the outlet. Then she just flung herself onto the bed and started to cry.

 

HelloDolly-Poster

***

Listlessly eating ginger milk pudding, Alex flicked through the diary, skimming for some kind of contact information or clue. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any. He couldn’t even figure out the author’s name. Or anyone’s name—everyone was referred to by nicknames or initals.

Judging from the bits he skimmed, the author wasn’t exactly a brain surgeon. It was all stuff about best friends and what she wore to a party and boys she liked. There was a little bit at the end about her coming to New York, but that was no use because obviously she’d come to New York or he wouldn’t have her suitcase right now. She seemed to have done a brief nannying course by correspondence, but that wasn’t much of a lead.

Then his eye stumbled on a reference to a trip to Bondi beach. The author was weighing up whether to wear her rose-pink bikini or black one-piece. This engaged his imagination pleasantly for a several moments, until he latched onto was that Bondi beach is in Australia. Australia. It rang a dreadful bell. A country where they used special Australian words. G’day mate. Kangaroo. Drongo.

Sick to his stomach, he grabbed his smartphone and looked up the word ‘drongo’ in the urban dictionary. It was, he read, an Australian synonym for ‘dumbass’ or ‘idiot,’ e.g. “It doesn’t go in the shed, ya drongo!”. his worst suspicions had been confirmed. In one of Fate’s little ironies, the suitcase he had in his possession belonged to the one person in the world he did not want to ever see again: the bad-luck blonde who’d accused him of assault.

He leapt up and paced the length of his room wondering how to approach this problem. It admittedly pleased him that that young harpy must be experiencing considerable distress without her koala bear and rollerblades. On the other hand, he needed his suitcase. Besides, he felt a little sorry for her. After all, she was new in the country and all alone, poor thing. If he returned the suitcase in spite of her rudeness then she might be eternally grateful to him and consider him something like a knight in shining armor coming to her rescue. Maybe she would even throw her arms around him in gratitude, possibly attired in a rose-pink bikini—but that was beside the point. The point was to get the luggage back to its rightful owner as soon as possible.

And in order to that, he had to read the diary again, very carefully, for clues.

 

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***

Sarah woke to the sound of hammering. It felt as if each blow was reverberating in her head as if she were some hapless squirrel inhabiting a tree being hammered by a woodpecker.

“Whaa—at is it?” she moaned.

“Miss Jellico, it is time for your interview,” a woman’s voice penetrated the door.

“Agghh,” she gurgled. “Just a minute!” she croaked.

“Please come quickly, you are late.”

She jerked herself up suddenly, appalled. The memory of the previous day came crashing into her tender consciousness.

“OK, I’ll be right there!” she sang and snapped into action. She gave her hair a cursory comb, splashed some cold water on her face, tugged at her blouse to smooth out the wrinkles and sprayed her person with Fruity Fresh Body Mist.

“Right, here goes!” she said to the girl in the mirror. “Time to meet your American family.”

As she stepped out the door, she was met by a worried looking woman in a crisply ironed maid’s uniform, complete with white cap.

“Hello,” Sarah said, “Are you the mum?”

“No, I’m the maid. My name’s Mina.”

“Hi!” Sarah stuck out her hand. Mina did not respond.

 “Please come quickly, Mrs. Dixon and the children are waiting.”

Sarah followed Mina along a corridor into a living room where everything was eggshell white—the carpet, the walls, the furniture, even the flat-screen television. It made Sarah blink a little. When her vision came into focus, she saw three figures—a woman, a girl of about five and a boy of two, all staring at her and all dressed in the same eggshell white.  

“Good morning, Sarah,” said the woman in a soft, musical voice. “Please take a seat.”

“Hi. Um, good morning,” Sarah mumbled.

Mrs. Dixon regarded her for a few moments and Sarah started to squirm under her gaze.

“Did you have a restful sleep after your journey?”

“Yes, it was great! Thanks.”

“Good, good…well, let me introduce you to your little employers. This is Annapurna. Can you tell Nanny how old you are?”

“I’m five,” she declared solemnly.

“And this is Winston. How many years old are you?”

“TWO!” he shouted, grinning and holding up four fingers.

“Pleased to meet you Miss Annapurna and Master Winston,” Sarah beamed. “You can call me Sarah. I’m sure we will get along great.”

Mrs. Dixon coughed gently.

“Actually, the children will be calling you Nanny. We’ve found it is difficult to retain people so just for the sake of continuity and stability, we consider it preferable that every new girl have the same name.”

“Oh,” Sarah considered it. “All right then. Nanny.”

“Did you have a moment to have a look at the house rules we left in your room?”

“Mmm? Oh. Yup, yes,” Sarah nodded.

“And you agree to the terms?”

“Absolutely, they sound great,” Sarah smiled.

“Excellent,” Mrs. Dixon smiled back, each tooth white and polished as a pearl. “That makes things easier, doesn’t it. Then if you wouldn’t mind signing this contract.” She offered Sarah a pen and paper.

Sarah obliged and handed the paper back.

“So. Nanny,” Mrs. Dixon said. “I know it’s only the first day but I’m afraid that you have set an unfortunate precedent.” She glanced at a slim diamond-studded watch on her wrist. “The children and I expected you here an hour ago. Annapurna will now have to miss her ballet lesson and we may even be late for her abstract drawing class. I want to impress upon you the vital importance of punctuality.”

“Sorry about that. The thing is, my cellphone’s on the blink. I do have an alarm clock but it’s in my suitcase and I don’t have it right now.”

“Indeed? But I saw Chaffeur taking it up in the elevator yesterday?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t mine. There was a mix-up. In fact, related to that, I am wondering if you have some kind of universal adapter? You see I need to charge my cellphone and—”

Mrs. Dixon waved her hand.

“As you must know from reading the house rules, your point of contact for quotidien considerations is Maid. I’m afraid that I have a very busy schedule and am unable to spend time thinking about extranea.”

“Extran…?”

“Little things that don’t concern me. Another thing: I notice you are wearing scent. Please desist for the duration of your employment.”

“Oh, is someone allergic?”

“They are not, but in aesthetic terms it is displeasing and does not accord with the ambient space. Please use toiletry products without scent from now on—they will be provided.”

“Right, roger that. Um. I was also wondering about things like meals. Is there a café in the neighborhood? I, like, really need a cup of joe right now.”

“Meals are to be had in-house at six o’clock sharp, as you know after reading the house rules,” Mrs. Dixon replied. “Lunch will be served in three hours, I’m sure you can wait until then. I’m afraid caffeine is not permitted.”

“Nanny is a bit fat, isn’t she mummy,” Annapurna said, casting a critical eye over Sarah’s voluptuous physique.

“Cheeky little monkey,” Sarah huffed.

“What is that curious accent, Nanny?” Mrs. Dixon inquired.

“It’s Australian. I come from Australia, remember? I said on my application.”

“Oh no, I didn’t handle the paperwork personally, that was handled by the agency. In any case, I wonder if you might tone it down. I’ve been watching a delightful program called The Great British Bakeoff; do you know it?”

What’s that got to do with the price of fish in China? Sarah wondered.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it.”

“Try to talk more like them if you can. Their accents sound so delightfully educated. I would be pleased if the children can absorb some culture.”

“I have Australian culture…I bought some great kids books from there. Paula the Platypus, Donald Plays the Didgeridoo. If I ever get my suitcase back, I can read those.”

“Hmmm. Perhaps. But in the meantime, work on sounding more like Julie Andrews in that old movie if you can.”

“You don’t mean Mary Poppins?”

“Yes, that’s it. That would be perfect. All right, lovely to meet you. The day’s schedule is here on the coffee table. Please refer to Maid if there is anything you need.”

Mrs. Dixon stood up and sashayed out in silk pants, leaving Sarah looking at the two children, and the two children looking back at her, deeply perplexed.

 

conservatory_perfect_fit

  ***

Alex was good at deducing things. As a private investigator’s assistant, it was his bread and butter. But without even a name to go on, this was something of a conundrum. Finding one particular girl in New York amounted to finding a dingo print in the Outback. Essentially, he was working blind.

He went back to the very first page of the diary and started to read.

 

                January 1

Worst New Year’s ever. In the history of the universe. I didn’t even get drunk I was that crushed. T. dumped me—just like that–for Shayla Scott. I never even saw it coming.

 

                                January 3

Well, here I am starting a diary. Here is where it’s at. Tomorrow is the rest of my life! Is that how it goes? Today is the first day of my life? No, that’s not it either. Never mind. I bought this because it’s time to Get Real. My best friends have all gone to uni or overseas and here I am, age 19, with nothing but great hair, $2 in my bank account and a lust for life.

OK, so what if T. dumped me? On New Year’s Eve. When I literally spent the last of my savings to look so hot. As Gazza says, the fact that he even did ANY of that means he is a giant deadhead and it was a narrow escape. Now is the time to get my shit together. Now is the time to dance in the rain! Now is the time to blossom into Jennifer Aniston post-Brad.

 

                                January 4

 I have to have a plan. I can’t work as a checkout chick at Coles the rest of my life. I mean, it’s a good job and I like the people but you need a plan in this life, I need to get out of Merimbula. And that’s not just because T. still shops there, god I hate him. But I also love him. But I’m trying not to.

 

January 6

I talked to Lobbo about my problem. She says it’s important to have goals and dreams. She has a dream board to help her visualize success—I’ve seen it, it’s nice. She wants to work in fashion and stuff so she’s posted arty pictures of classic dresses and shoes from old issues of Vogue, a really artistic sketch of the Eiffel Tower and inspiring words.

She says the thing you have to do is decide what you really want, then just create a beautiful image of it to put in your room so that you can see every day and it’ll inspire you to move ahead and live your True Reality.

 

January 7

Couldn’t stop thinking about T. How could he do that to me? We were together for three months, that’s practically married at our age. And now I’m wondering if he was hooking up with other people while we were together because now G. says that that absolute skank Shayla is five months pregnant. She was his girlfriend before we were together and now I’m wondering if he ever even really stopped seeing her even while he was seeing me???? When G. told me she was having a sprog, I said I have to ask him if it’s true. I was this close to driving over his place and confronting him. G. and L. physically restrained me and we ended up just having mojitos and remembering school days. School seems so long ago now. But they left and now I feel bad again. How am I ever going to get over this.

 

January 8

So I spent two hours figuring out a goal. I realized that ever since I was little I really wanted to see New York. And I also love kids and want to have maybe 5 kids or maybe more, so what could be more perfect than nannying in New York? Several birds with one stone:

  1. Get the hell out of Merimbula
  2. Get work experience
  3. Get ankle-biter experience
  4. Meet someone new who won’t treat me so bad

 

Strangely moved, Alex read avidly through Sarah’s record of digging herself out of the pit of despair, of signing up for the nanny course, making new friends, feeling confident and planning for her trip. Then he came to the final entry:

 

Only one leg to go! Can’t wait to finally see New York…so many things I want to do there. Top five: Central Park, Macy’s, eat a hotdog, ride the Subway, see a Broadway Show. Oh, and maybe meet someone AMAZING and have a beautiful summer romance. I hope the family I’m working for is nice and let me have heaps of free time.

 

Closing the diary, it occurred to Alex that she must have written this at Guangzhou Airport, just before they saw each other for the first time. He felt the tingle of Fate’s slipper walking over his grave. It was ordained that he would return the book to her and she would realize he, Alex Huang, was the New York Someone she longed to meet. And that T. was a pathetic wrinkled anchovy.

And now he had a lead. She’d worked at a place called Coles in another place in Merimbula. With him it was a matter of moments before he was on the phone.   

 “Hello? Are you the manager of Coles? Hello. My name is Tillman Harper and I would like to make a complaint about one of your staff. I was in there on—” he paused to squint at the diary—“last Friday and there was a young lady there who was very rude to me. Why didn’t I mention it at the time? Well, that’s a good question. I tried not to make a fuss at the time but it has since festered so, here I am. Anyway, I don’t know this young lady’s name, but she is about five foot eight with long curly blonde hair and a few freckles on her nose. What’s that? You say you know her? She’s done this sort of thing before? And she no longer works with you? Ah. What’s her name please? You see, I’m so traumatized by the incident that I would like to talk to her about it. Sarah…Jellico. I see. Oh, she left for America? Well, that’s too bad, I would have liked to give her a piece of my mind. Thank you. You’ve been most helpful.”

Alex smiled with satisfaction. From now on, it would be a cinch.

 

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***

 

Sarah had had one of the worst days of her life. Truly, almost as bad as New Year’s Day when she’d cried her eyes out over Tristan licking Shayla’s tonsils at midnight.

There were so many ways it was bad.

The kids were like something out of a horror movie, especially the little girl. She had that kind of doll-like appearance and preternatural self-possession that made Sarah feel like she was constantly being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Every time Sarah deviated from any ‘house rule’ Annapurna was right behind her, making a mental note so she could report back to the Big Chief. Little Winston had a sunnier, more carefree personality but he reveled in getting himself into potentially suicidal situations. Like a moth to the flame, he was drawn to sharp objects, electrical appliances, the balcony, plastic bags. Even apparently harmless things, like his stuffed ‘sheepie’ was a hazard—Sarah caught him stuffing it into his mouth and turning a pretty shade of blue. When she took it away from him, he started bawling at the top of his lungs.

After a couple of hours of this, she was relieved to hear Mina announce that lunch was ready. This was a chance to lock Winston in a highchair and to momentarily distract Annapurna from surveillance. When Sarah saw what her lunch was, though, she nearly had a conniption fit.

“What’s this?” she asked tremulously.

“This is the house lunch, Miss. A salad of raw vegetables and whitefish, with lime dressing.”

Sarah stared at the small pile of shredded cabbage and carrot with a slimy lump of raw fish next to it. Her eyes began to swim with tears.

“Is it, um, a starter? Is there anything else?”

“No Miss,” said Mina. “That’s it.”

“Don’t you like it?” Annapurna asked, with sinister interest.

“Oh, it looks delicious!” Sarah said. “Why don’t you eat up your soup before it gets cold, dear?”

“After lunch, I will need to get your measurements for the uniform, Nanny,” said Mina. “So I can sew it overnight.”

“Uniform?” Sarah gulped.

“Yes, Miss,” Mina whispered. “It’s part of your contract, you know.”

“Don’t you like uniforms?” asked Annapurna.

“Oh yes, I love uniforms,” Sarah smiled in a sickly sort of way. “Listen, Maid, can I talk to you in the corner for a second.”

Sarah drew Mina apart and whispered.

“Would you mind watching the kids for two ticks while I go out and get a phone adapter?” Sarah whispered.

“No Miss, you’re not supposed to go out,” Mina shook her head.

“What? You mean, like, ever?”

“You must stay at home except for when you are accompanying the children.”

“What?!” Sarah nearly fainted.

“It’s all in the contract miss,” Mina said.

“Why are you whispering?” Annapurna asked.

 

After enduring a full day of misery, Sarah finally handed the children over to the night nurse and went to her room. As soon as she locked the door behind her, she flew to the nightstand where she’d left the laminated sheet and read the list of house rules:

 

Information for Nanny

Welcome to your base for the next few months. Please make yourself at home.

Before you begin your duties, we ask that you familiarize yourself with some of the house rules, which must be followed without deviation.

 

The Nanny MUST:

  • Be prepared to start work at 7am sharp. Breakfast is served from 6am to 6.30 in the kitchen.
  • Wear a clean uniform at all times when on duty.
  • Remain in her room when not on duty, unless given written permission.
  • Adhere to a strict diet. No caffeine, sugar, red meat or alcohol will be permitted.
  • Never curse or shout in front of the children. Physical punishment of any kind is grounds for dismissal.
  • Smile and be happy.
  • Never use or any electronic device except when off duty and in her room.
  • Never wear fragrance or scented beauty products.
  • Never wear jewelry

 

Dazed and sightless, Sarah let the page fall from her hands.

“Sweet suffering wombats. What have I got myself into?”

 

***

“Hello, is this Mr. Jellico?”

“Speaking,” said a raspy voice.

“Hello, my name is Alex Huang.”

“G’day Alex, what can I do you for?”

“Well, it’s about your daughter Sarah.”

“My granddaughter, you mean? That ratbag? What’s she done now? Aw Christ, I s’pose you’ve knocked her up have you?”

“Sorry?”

“Don’t apologize to me, young fella, you’re the one I feel sorry for. If I were you, I’d change me locks and get the hell out of dodge. Lay low for a while until she calms down a bit. She can get as cross as a frog in a sock when she gets the wind up her. I don’t imagine you’ll be any too popular at the minute.”

“What?”

“Well, if you didn’t use protection and now she’s with a bun in the oven.”

“Wait, no! I didn’t get her pregnant.”

“No? Thank the big guy upstairs for that, for your sake. I have my doubts she’d be a fit parent, let alone a bloody nanny. God help the family in New York that drew her as a short straw.”

“Actually, Mr. Jellico, that is sort of the reason I’m calling, you see. I’m in New York right now and—”

“Don’t beat about the bush, I haven’t got all day.”

“Right. The thing is, I have her suitcase.”

“Why would you have her suitcase?” Asked Mr. Jellico, puzzled.

“And she has mine.”

“I don’t understand. Is this one of these Japanese games young people play nowadays? Don’t you have other things to be doing? In my day we didn’t have time to play silly buggers, we had real work to do—”

“No, no: it was an accident. At the airport, we accidentally took each other’s bags. Now I need to contact her to get it back.”

“Well, why don’t you just call her for gosh sakes? My word, the world is going to the dogs when a young man from New York has to call a duffer in Sydney, Australia, just to figure out the facts of life. You want to contact Sarah, just give her a bell. It isn’t rocket science.”

“Uh huh, yes, but I don’t have her phone number is the thing.”

“Ah, I get you now. And you want me to tell you her phone number.”

“Um, yes. Please.”

“Rightyo, lad. Sit tight. I’ve got it written down somewhere here.”

At last, after a protracted conversation with the elderly eccentric, Alex had the number he wanted. He dialed the number and was disappointed to see that the phone was off. However, he left a message and waited. And waited. And waited.

***

Sarah woke the next morning having had very little sleep. For one thing she was starving and didn’t want to miss breakfast, for another she was racking her brains on how to get out of the situation in which she now found herself.

She was pretty sure that anyone else in her position would simply hand in their notice. But the thing was, she was dead broke, she knew no one in the city, she had no way of contacting her friends and family in Australia. Even if she did get in touch with them, what good would that do? Her friends were as broke as she was and grandad would just laugh, the crazy old coot. Maybe she could escape and call the cops? But it would be her word against the Dixons, and Mr. Dixon was a big-shot judge! Besides, she’d idiotically signed that ‘terms of employment’ thing.

It seemed as if the only thing to do, for now anyway, was grit her teeth and keep going until a solution occurred to her. Just as she’d come to this conclusion, she heard a soft knock on the door. She leapt up, opened the door, pulled Mina into her room then locked the door. Mina dropped what she was carrying in surprise and gave a little whimper.

“Listen Mina,” Sarah snarled, “What’s the deal?”

Mina looked at her with wide eyes.

No entiendo!”

Sarah grabbed her by her crisply ironed lapels and pushed her against the door.

“Don’t play dumb. Spill the beans. How do you get around these stupid house rules?”

Mina kept her mouth shut. Sarah heard a crinkle and put her hand into the pocket of Mina’s apron, retrieving a giant pack of M&Ms.

“I knew it!” she said triumphantly and shook them in front of Mina’s face. “How did you get them? You have a black market? You have mules? How can I get in on the game?”

Mina shook her head.

“Don’t be a hero, Mina,” Sarah said. “You think Mrs. Dixon is going to like you carrying these little sugar bombs around? Because I will tell her. Unless you help me.”

“How do I know I can trust you?” Mina hissed. “You’re new. You’ll be out of here in two weeks, just like the rest. I’m here for the long haul. I have five kids and two grandchildren in Guatemala.”

“I’m no grass. Besides, I need you. We work together. Right, so what I need is an electrical adapter to charge this smart phone—and I need it by the time I finish my shift tonight. If I don’t get it, then Mrs. Dixon is going to learn that you’re a big old chocolate hog.”

Mina frowned. 

“OK, I’ll do my best,” she muttered.

Thank you.”

“Your uniform is on the floor. Put it on if you know what’s good for you,” Mina blurted, before hurrying out.

Ten minutes later, Sarah emerged from her room in a uniquely unflattering outfit. Someone, apparently, had looked up ‘nursery governess uniform, 1910’ on the internet and taken it from there. There was a hideous long black dress with a white collar and white cuffs, all made of some scratchy material. There was a long white apron with a frilly hem and black lace-up boots. There was also a frilly white bonnet, fastened under the chin with a ribbon.

“What have I done to deserve this?” Sarah muttered, looking in the mirror.

 

4977616178_57438f888d_b

***

 

When the morning arrived and Sarah had still not phoned him back, Alex started to worry. She did not seem the sort of girl who would ignore a phone call telling her that her licorice allsorts had been recovered and were ready for pick-up. He feared something had gone terribly wrong.

He opened her diary and found the one place she mentioned the family she was going to work for: the Dixons. Apparently they were rich and they lived in Manhattan. Easy. He could locate them in a couple of hours, max.

Except he couldn’t. They were extremely hard to find. There was nothing on social media, nothing in phone directories, no images. Hitting a brick wall, he paced his room and considered. The experience of frustration reminded him of something: looking for someone who’d once been an FBI agent who’d gone underground.  This Dixon guy was rich, maybe mega rich. But he wasn’t advertising himself. So what was he? Some kind of top-level government employee? An under-the-radar businessman?

Finally, he had to admit defeat. It was time to call his boss, the peerless International Private Investigator known only as Xeron.

“Why are you calling me? I thought I told you not to call me,” that icon said with his mouth full. He seemed to be eating some kind of sugary cereal, but it was hard to tell because as usual he appeared in silhouette and his features were obscured.

“It’s an emergency. I’m trying to get in touch with a girl,” Alex explained.

“That’s not an emergency,” Xeron scoffed. “That’s life,” he chortled at his own joke.

“I need your help.”

“What is it?”

“I need to find a guy named Dixon in Manhattan.”

“You’re calling me for that? Everybody knows that.”

I don’t. I couldn’t find anything on him.”

“You think a Judge in the Court of Appeals is going to post his cat pics?” Xeron snorted.

“What?”

“Yes, of course you can’t find him. He’s not a moron. Evil, maybe, but not a moron.”

“Why evil?”

“Oh, this and that. He’s come to our attention before. What’s your interest? Oh that’s right, a girl. Who’s the girl?”

“She’s gone to work as a nanny for him.”

“Oh dear.”

“What? Why oh dear?”

“He’s sort of a…what do you call them?”

“I don’t know, what do you call them?”

“Like a …a person who exploits staff… slave driver–you get the picture. Imports vulnerable foreign workers and makes them work in terrible conditions.”

“But surely that’s illegal?”

“Ye-es. He knows how to get around it though. He’s a judge, remember?”

“Well, anyway, what’s his address?”

Xeron gave him the address without having to give it a second thought.

“We’ve been trying to catch him in the act for years, but it never sticks. You know how it is. By the way, why did you need the address?”

“I’m going there right.”

“What’s that?” Xeron dropped his spoon in alarm. “I strongly advise you not to do that. Security in that building is intense. You will not get through to the twenty sixth floor.”

“Thank you, I’ll make a note of that,” said Alex, writing 26 on his hand.

“Alex! No! Please reconsider. If he finds out who you are, he will destroy Bloodhound Private Investigation! It will be very easy for him to do that.”

“I won’t tell him who I work for,” Alex shrugged.

“How can I persuade you that this is a bad—”

Alex switched off the video chat and started getting ready to go.

 

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***

Mrs. Dixon looked beautiful and pained, like an operatic heroine who’d just learned that her father had just been condemned to death by the tyrannical king.

“Please sit down, Nanny. Annapurna told me something very troubling last night. I want to speak to you to ascertain the facts,” Mrs. Dixon, dressed in a suit of robin-egg blue, clasped her hands on her lap so tightly that the knuckles were white. “She said that you were rough with little Winston. I must remind you, Nanny, that physical punishment of any sort is anathema—”

“What?” Sarah said. “I don’t remember being rough.”

“You took sheepie away from him and hurt his finger,” Annapurna explained in a mature and disapproving tone. Winston pouted and glared at Sarah, the memory revived.

Sarah laughed.

“I do not see the humor,” Mrs. Dixon said, appalled.

“I do not see the humor,” Annapurna parroted.

“He was choking on sheepie. He was literally turning blue, so I had to take it away in a hurry. I didn’t hit him or twist anything, I just took it out of his mouth to save his life.”

“Seepie,” Winston murmured mournfully.

“I’m sorry, but that sounds implausible to me,” said Mrs. Dixon, “But at any rate, see that it doesn’t happen again. Now, the children have a very full program today. I’ve written it all down here. Make sure they get to their programs punctually; Mr. Maduro will be waiting downstairs with the limousine. Any questions, Nanny?”

“No ma’am,” Sarah said. “No questions.”

 

001325_1000530769_NoColor

***

Just as Alex arrived at the huge shiny apartment building, he saw Sarah emerge. Smitten as he was, even he could see that her outfit was bizarre and unflattering.

 “Hey!” he shouted out of the taxi window. “Sarah!”

But she didn’t look up. She was focused on getting two small children into a limousine.

“Can you follow that car?” He said to the taxi driver.

“Eh?” The taxi driver said. “Sorry buddy, that’s not in my job description.”

“I’ll give you two hundred bucks if you follow that car.”

“OK, sir. Yes sir.”

The limousine stopped outside a large modern building called Junior Juilliards. Alex jumped out of the taxi, with the silver suitcase, and hauled it over to where Sarah was helping a little boy carry a miniature violin case.

“Hey, Sarah!”

She stood up straight and looked at him, amazed.

“You! From the plane? How do you know my name?”

“I have your suitcase,” he pointed by way of explanation.

“Oh,” she said. “Thanks.”

“I need to talk to you,” he said.

“That’s OK, you can just leave the suitcase in the limo. Mr. Maduro? This is my suitcase, can you put it in the boot?”

Mr. Maduro scratched his head.

“She means the trunk,” Alex explained, then stepped forward and touched her on the arm.

“I really need to talk with you.”

“Wait a minute! I see what’s going on here…” she stared at him wide-eyed. “You’re a stalker! You deliberately took my suitcase at the airport and you’ve been following me around ever since. I’ve seen movies about people like you. Mr. Maduro, call the cops please.”

“What? No! Don’t call the cops,” Alex said to Mr. Maduro. 

“Oh strewth, we’re going to be late for the lesson,” Sarah said, “Come on kids!”

“You’re not supposed to curse, Nanny,” said Annapurna.

“I’ll wait for you here,” called Alex as the three of them disappeared into the music school.

“So, Mr. Maduro—mind if I wait in the limo?”

The chauffeur shrugged, which Alex took to mean assent. He got in the back feeling reasonably pleased with himself. It wasn’t everyone who could have located a single Australian cutie in a city of 8.54 million people.

Finally, Sarah emerged with her young charges. She herded them into the car, helped the kids into their car seats and got in. Thanks to her floppy bonnet, it wasn’t until she’d finished that she realized Alex was there.

“What the bloody hell is he doing here?” she shrieked.

Winston started to cry at the loud noise and Annapurna put her hands over her ears.

Mr. Maduro, intent on getting to Central Park Zoo on time (Mrs. Dixon could track his movements with a GPS device), ignored Sarah’s demands that he stop the car.

Sarah put her seatbelt on and glared at Alex over Winston’s car seat.

“You are going down, mate,” she said. “I have your name, phone number and address. The police are going to be very interested in you.” She fumbled for her phone and remembered she didn’t have it on her.

“Calm down for one second,” Alex said. “In the first place, the police aren’t going to do anything. In the second place, I want my suitcase. In the third place, I have to tell you something and you weren’t answering your phone.”

“So tell me now.”

He looked at the little girl staring at him with wide blue eyes.

“Um, no, I need to tell you in private.”

“I don’t have an adapter for my phone, OK? That’s why I wasn’t answering it. And it’s none of your business anyway.”

They rode on in silence for three blocks and then something occurred to Sarah.

“Wait, what do you mean I wasn’t answering my phone? How do you know? You couldn’t have known my phone number! And how do you even know my name?”

“I read your diary.”

“You—” For once, Sarah was speechless. Alex could see her starting to go into her frog-in-sock routine and hastened to soothe her troubled waters.

“Not like that. I just needed to find out who you were. I’m sorry.”

“You read my diary. You absolute munter! I knew you were the devil incarnate as soon as I set my eyes on you.”

“Look, I know—it sounds bad, but how else was I going to find out who you were? Normal people label their luggage with their address or at least their email or something.”

She glowered but allowed him to continue.

“So I found out you’re from Merimbula and that you worked at the supermarket there. I called them to get your name. Then I called your grandad, who, by the way, is a little bit odd.”

“Yeah, well, at least he’s not a scuzzy perv who reads girls’ diaries,” she pouted.

There was a period of silence.

 “Is he your boyfriend?” Annapurna said.

“No, he is most definitely not.”

“Why is he in my daddy’s car?”

“That is a very good question. What do you think the answer might be?”

“I think he’s a jewel thief,” the girl answered decisively.

“You might be on to something there Annapurna.”

“Here is the Zoo!” Mr. Maduro called.

“OK, kids, come on, we’re going to see some animals.”

Alex sprang out of the car, helped Mr. Maduro get a stroller out of the trunk and chased after Sarah and the kids, who were already hurrying away.

 

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***

With Annapurna gazing at spider monkeys and Winston nodding off in his stroller, Alex finally took the opportunity to explain.

“Look, I see you’re mad at me but the main thing I have to tell you is you’re in danger. I know about your employers. They’re known for exploiting workers.”

“Yeah, why don’t you tell me something I don’t know,” Sarah scoffed.  “Do you think I’m wearing this Edwardian garbage bag out of choice?”

“You have to quit.”

“Quit? Oh yeah and then what? Go back to my mansion in the Bahamas? I’m completely broke, mate. I can’t afford a Big Mac let alone a plane ride back home.”

“You can come and stay with me,” he suggested. She looked at him doubtfully. He seemed sincere.

“I mean at my mom’s house. Until you can get home. She’d be happy to have you. She likes having people to cook for.”

“Well, that’s kind of you, I guess. Maybe it’s a good idea. But I dunno, you actually seem nice and all but you’re basically a complete stranger.”

“I don’t think so. I feel like we’re friends,” Alex said.

“You do?”

“Yes, sure,” suddenly he saw something in the corner of his eye. “I know what would cheer you up—wait right there.”

In two minutes he was back, with a hotdog in his hand.

“This is the real deal: mustard, ketchup, pickle, the flavor of immigrant dreams…”

She laughed.

“A New York hotdog from a New York hotdog stand!”

“You got it. Try it,” he held it out to her. She took a big bite and rolled her eyes.

“It’s so good!” she looked as if she were about to cry.

“I thought you’d like it,” he grinned. Seeing a large blob of mustard on her chin he carefully wiped it off with a napkin. She looked at him with a promising hint of distressed-damsel-saved-by-knight in her eyes.

“You know what else you might like?”

“What?”

“Seeing Bloomingdale’s.”

She smiled.

“Well, yeah, but how?”

“It’s literally ten minutes’ walk away. Come on, you can’t see New York without visiting Bloomingdale’s! And the kids will love it.”

As it happened, the kids didn’t really love it that much.

“I wanna thee the TIGER!” Winston wailed, when he realized they were leaving.

“They don’t have a tiger anymore,” Sarah said.

“Waaaaah!”

“I’ve already seen Bloomingdale’s and mummy said we have a glass-making class after the zoo.”

“Come on, guys,” Alex said. “Let’s go on an adventure!”

On the way to the department store, Sarah was turning matters over in her mind. Strange, she thought, how you can be so wrong about someone based on a first impression. If she’d only known him from the plane, she would have said he was the most revolting cane-toad that had ever hopped out from under a rock. Now, well, it was different. Only this morning she’d considered life barely worth living, but now the magic in living was back. He had really interesting ears and walked a bit like a dancer.

As she was thinking these things, he turned around to smile at her, which made her blush.

They spent a couple of blissful hours wandering around the store. In truth, Sarah was less enthralled with the store than with life itself. Quite suddenly, she realized, she had fallen in love. The specter of Mrs. Dixon no longer bothered her in the least. Every time Annapurna pointed out the shocking irregularity of the excursion, Sarah merely picked her up to give her a hug.

 

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By the time they got back to Central Park, however, Mr. Maduro and the limo were nowhere in sight. Instead, there was a police squad car and a burly cop who stepped forward.

“Miss Sarah Jellico?”

“Yeah?” she said.

“You are under arrest for child abduction. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”

***

 “Two calls in one day? This is a record!” Xeron said jovially.

“It’s about that girl. She’s been arrested,” Alex said.

Xeron sighed.

“What did I tell you? And did you listen? No and no. All right, tell me what happened.”

Alex detailed the day’s events.

“So there you have it. I really need your help on this one.”

“What a ballsup,” Xeron muttered. “OK, I’ll see what I can do. We’ve been sitting on this one for years, waiting for the right time to move. My friend in the NYPD hired me to collect witness reports and he says he’s almost got enough to convict.  Then you come in like some kind of sex-crazed bull in a china shop…Let’s just hope this is going to work.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Send the lastest batch of evidence into my pal and urge him to arrest Dixon for unlawful employment practices this afternoon.”

“What about Sarah? Will she be safe? Can you get her out of jail.”

“I think so,” Xeron said. “Give me a couple of hours and I’ll see what I can do.”

Two hours later, Alex was at the family home polishing off a clay hot-pot, when the doorbell rang.

He opened the front door and saw Sarah, with two silver Samsonite suitcases, on the stoop.

“Sarah!” he cried and hugged her.

“Can you pay the taxi driver?” she asked. “I don’t have any cash.”

Five minutes later, she was sitting at the Huang family table with a clay hot-pot in front of her. She had a wonderful tale to relate.

“It was so strange,” she said. “I was sitting in this jail cell and all of a sudden a cop came and said I was free to go. I asked why but they wouldn’t say. And then I said I needed to go back to the Dixons to get my stuff but somehow, all my stuff was already at the jail, as well as your suitcase. The cop said under no circumstances was I ever to try to contact the Dixon family ever again. I had to sign a piece of paper, which I did, and then I was free.”

“Very strange,” Alex agreed, then reached over to squeeze her hand. “But good that it’s all over now. What say you and I go see a Broadway show tonight?”

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