"Life of Chai" ~ introducing Shona Patel's Teatime for the Firefly

Every blue moon or so I happen upon a novel that resonates perfectly and places me right there ~ Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel is just such a novel; after winning my hotly contested Captivating Opening competition it carried me along on a beautiful and fascinating journey.

As A. Vinci observes in her Amazon review:
“...This was one of those books that I just could not put down. Teatime for the Firefly is a beautiful and gripping story. Shona's exquisite gift of writing takes the reader on an imaginary trip to the tea plantations of Assam, India. Though I have never traveled there; Shona makes be feel as though I have. I highly recommend Teatime for the Firefly!...”

Regular readers know I never spoil plots but I have to reveal just how fresh the author’s voice is and how immediate and uncompromising the narrator and the main character are. This is a journal to enjoy as a travelogue of times gone by in lands afar. And by virtue of Shona’s alchemy you will absorb the native culture as you journey through the tale.

Shona Patel, the daughter of an Assam tea planter, drew upon her personal observations and experiences to create the vivid characters and setting for Teatime for the Firefly. An honors graduate in English literature from Calcutta University, Ms. Patel has won several awards for creative writing and is a trained graphic and architectural designer. Teatime for the Firefly is her debut novel.

Shona is published by Mira Books, a Harlequin imprint that specializes in literary and mainstream fiction geared towards book clubs. She is represented by literary agent, April Eberhardt.

~ ~ ~

“...Miss Rose, as she was called, was a young Anglo-Indian teacher with chestnut brown hair and pink cat’s-eye glasses with diamond accents. The small fry of the school swooned with adoration for her and wanted to lick her like a lollipop...”

[Stef] Thank you so much, Shona, for coming over to answer my random questions. My first one is: what do you think makes readers relate so readily and become absorbed in your story? I realize it can be a combination of things but I’d like to know what you think creates the ultimate spark that animates the story. And does it flow seamlessly onto the page in general or do you spend hours on end rewriting?

[Shona]  The first question is difficult to answer because I am too close to my own writing to be truly objective but I can take a guess: I believe my readers empathize with my main character, Layla, who is an outcast of society and faces several challenges to overcome her predicament and find true love. After all, who doesn’t like to root for the underdog, right?
Even though Teatime for the Firefly is set in a remote part of the world (Assam, in northeast India) and deals with an exotic culture, there are certain universal themes like destiny, love, fear, empowerment, courage and prejudice woven deeply into the narrative. These themes transcend cultural barriers and resonate with readers.
Teatime for the Firefly has also generated a great deal of interest in tea: more specifically Assam Tea. My readers are curious to know where Assam tea is grown and the British colonial history and lifestyle of the tea plantations. As the daughter of a tea planter and having spent the first fifteen years of my life growing up in a tea plantation in Assam, I am privileged to share with my readers several stories and authentic details of the setting through my fictional novel.

As for the writing process: I have a rather odd formula that seems to work for me. Before I even begin to write, I spend at least six months to a year gathering research, making notes and tossing around the premise for a novel. Once I have a clear idea for a story and my fictional characters begin to live and breathe inside my head, I hole myself up for a month (this is the Nanowrimo technique you may be familiar with) and try to throw down the rough draft of an entire novel at one shot. It’s “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” at this stage because I write furiously and resist the urge to go back and fix things. When I am done, I let the draft sit for a week before I take a fresh look and work on the fixes, rewrites, plot doctoring and polishing. Just how much additional work goes in depends on how I feel about my draft but if I’ve mulled over the story enough and done my research right, I am usually not too far off course. The biggest mistake for me is to jump into the writing too soon with half-baked ideas because I know I’ll hit roadblocks and doldrums somewhere down the line.

 “...In many ways, Dadamoshai saw me as the poster child for the modern Indian woman. He gave me the finest education and taught me to speak my mind. I was free to forge my own destiny. Sometimes I struggled to stay grounded like a lone river rock in a swirl of social pressures. But in truth, this was the only option I had...”

[Stef] Your main character Layla is by no means weak and never wallows in pathos. Her mentor Dadamoshai provides her with conviction and motivation, exposing her to the risks associated with gaining experience. Do you have a favorite mentor figure? – either relating to you or other people out there in the world…

[Shona] That would be my parents. My parents were a very free-spirited couple and they never imposed any religious or cultural boundaries on my sister and me as children. They empowered us to define and grow into our own beliefs and taught us never to judge others. Unlike most Indian families, there was no pressure on us to get married and we were allowed to pursue our individual careers. Nobody in my family had arranged marriages either, including my parents, which was pretty unusual for their time.

“...I wondered what Sister Cecilia would say if she found out my real reason for coming to the library? She would be terribly disillusioned, no doubt. Not only was I pretending to be holy, I was secretly coveting a man who was formally betrothed to another. But thankfully, Sister Cecelia would never find out, because I, Layla Roy, was the self-proclaimed mistress of deceit...”

[Stef] If I were lucky enough to attract Layla’s attention and she wanted to ensnare me with tiffin, which particular chai infusion and snacks would she employ?

[Shona] Here is a chai I make when I need a jolt of inspiration. It seems to clear away the cobwebs.

You will need:
2 cups water
1 cup milk

2 whole cardamoms*
I half inch stick of fresh ginger*
(*pound above with a mortar and pestle)

Raw Turbindo sugar (or regular sugar) to taste.

3 teabags of strong English Breakfast Tea (Assam) or 4 teaspoons of loose leaf Assam Tea (I use CTC/Assam – which yields a stronger brew)

Bring the water and milk to a boil in a saucepan.
Add the tea and **spices. Turn off heat. Cover and let stand for 5 mins.
Strain and serve. Add sugar to taste.

A good accompaniment to a cup of steaming chai is some delicious shortbread. I have my own original fruit & nut shortbread biscotti recipe on my Teabuddy blog. Check it out HERE.

“...I don’t know when exactly Manik’s letters became love letters. His emotions were so carefully woven into his writing, they were hard to detect . They were like the subtle creeping of dawn that imperceptibly transforms night into day...”

[Stef] Wow! I love the Teabuddy blog! So the question on the lips of all who imbibed with the Firefly is whether you have a work in progress? Will you be weaving more magic to whisk us away again?

[Shona] Yes indeed! My second book Song of the Flame Tree is being edited right now and is scheduled for publication in April 2015. This novel is the grandfather’s (Dadamoshai) story – a prequel, if you will, to Teatime for the Firefly. I am really excited about it and I can’t wait to share it with my readers.

[Stef] And I can’t wait to read it, Shona! Thank you so much for sprinkling your magic dust for us!

[Shona] Many thanks to you, Stef. It has been a real pleasure. Cheers!

Shona Patel:   Twitter ~ Facebook ~ Website

Teatime for the Firefly
Shona Patel

“My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. For a young girl growing up in India, this is bad news. But everything began to change for me one spring day in 1943, when three unconnected incidents, like tiny droplets on a lily leaf, tipped and rolled into one. It was that tiny shift in the cosmos, I believe, that tipped us together  me and Manik Deb.”

Layla Roy has defied the fates. Despite being born under an inauspicious horoscope, she is raised to be educated and independent by her eccentric grandfather, Dadamoshai. And, by cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb – a man betrothed to another. All were minor miracles in India that spring of 1943, when young women’s lives were predetermined – if not by the stars, then by centuries of family tradition and social order.

Editor's Choice: Immortal L.A. by Eric Czuleger

I fell in love with this book quickly and savored every morsel of this mélange of modern mythology set deep in the City of Angels. Each serving has its own charm or urgency or insight that melds into a fascinating and original reading experience.

As usual, I’m not going to spill the pot. But here are a few snippets from early readers of this vibrant offering:

“...If you love fantasy mixed with social satire this is a must read!...”
“...a collection of linked stories chocked full of absorbing characters and compelling prose....”
“...It's a playful, imaginative, and compelling novel that mixes fantasy with history and a deep love of L.A....”
“...Incredibly diverse and intriguing characters make the book kick all kinds of ass in all sorts of different directions....”
“...Urban Fantasy and Magical Realism are elevated to new levels with Immortal LA....”

And Eric has agreed to pop over and address some of my random hypothetical questions, which follow after his bio:

Eric Czuleger is from Los Angeles. He got a degree in acting from Cal State Fullerton. He came back to Los Angeles to be a founding member and resident playwright of Coeurage Theatre Company. He left Los Angeles again to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Northern Albania. While overseas he wrote ten installments of “Live Theatre Blog” a monthly play about Albanian life that was performed in Hollywood and live streamed around the world. His other plays include, Falling Dreams, Moonburn, Craigslist: Last Posts/Last Days, Head Over Heels, L.A. Lights Fire, and No. Saints Lane.

Immortal L.A. is his first novel. Eric is currently working on his second novel Farnoosh as well as Our Crowded Skies: a live theatre documentary about UFO culture in America.

Thanks for coming over Eric – my first hypothetical question is this: during an episode of low self esteem Satan has succumbed to advice from his image consultant and agreed to marry a Reiki master who supplements her art with crystals and aromatherapy. Rumor has it she doesn’t prune her pits. You are in charge of Satan’s bachelor party and so it’s up to you to make his latter hours as fulsome as possible. Where will you take him? Will you try to counsel him and his predicament? What pranks do you have in store once you’ve gotten him sufficiently intoxicated?

I’m glad you asked. Satan has become a good friend of mine in recent years. He’s not without his foibles, but who is? We would go to the bar at the Standard Hotel. Not the public bar, the secret bar under the pool where all cellphones are confiscated at the door by an albino bouncer. Satan can get us in, he knows the password. He knows every password.
We would line up shots with Kanye West and Jeff Goldblum (they’re good friends, it’s well known in Hollywood). After getting a solid buzz on we would retire into the lower bowels of the bar and watch underground cage fighting, cheering along noisily as the lower classes pummel each other for our amusement. When one of the cage fighters has beaten the other into a leaking sack of bone shards and saliva, we’ll give Satan the final say in whether the final blow is delivered or not. He’ll give a thumbs down and retire to purchase some nachos from the concession stand.
While he’s gone, we’ll rufie his drink, and leave him naked in the middle of East L.A.

Quite by accident, you shoot dead two religious callers on your doorstep. The AK-47 you used is not registered and so things are a bit tricky admin-wise. But then again, it’s not as though you can actually *kill most of these callers, given the eternal life policy they have built in, so that just leaves their old shells to dispose of. How would you deal with the aftermath?

I’m an American. They were on my property. They came right at me with knives and opinions. That’s what I saw any way. I don’t know what you saw. I’ll call the authorities and pay the registration for the gun. They’ll drag the corpses off for me any way – they seem to love collecting them.

A post on your Facebook page goes viral because of the implications of an unfortunate typo. It has inflamed and divided world leaders to the point that global nuclear war is imminent. The real estate market has shifted to providing bunkers and have offered you a courtesy bunker in recognition of your contribution to market recovery in their field. You only have a few liters of luggage allowance so what are you going to pack in your “cabin trunk” to see you through the Apocalypse?

I’ll take and setup a radio broadcasting rig. I’ll lecture twenty-four hours a day about the Tribulation and become a self-stylized prophet/cult leader. The survivors will flock to me to pay tribute. All those that refuse to tithe will be crushed by my faithful legions.

It’s 15 years later and the survivors have just returned to the surface and are in the process of forming a government. Anyone with an iPad can run for mayor. What inducements and benefits would *you offer the masses to get them to vote for you?

I think I would bow out of this particular scenario. I would never want to be democratically elected. There is too much political red-tape and party pleasing to be done. For me it’s ruling a fiefdom of theocratic zealots with an iron fist or nothing.

Yes…that makes sense; after all you have total mind control of the masses – so we’ll assume you win the election for mayor without even having registered. In fact you rule the whole northern hemisphere (plus you’re looking to expand).

Anyway, moving on… Your old buddy Satan has laid claim to your couch after matrimony morphed into acrimony. See, Eric, if you had talked him out of getting married in question #one while you were at the bachelor party you wouldn’t have this issue to deal with – there’s a lesson in there somewhere – but the question is, how to broach the ugly subject of his incongruous presence, now that you’re the supreme leader of the northern hemisphere.

As supreme leader? Honestly, I would deal with Satan in the same way that I deal with all personal problems. I would avoid the topic entirely, until pleasantries were replaced by long cannibalizing silences. We would talk less and less as the elephant in the room stamped its feet and trumpeted in disapproval. Eventually Satan and I would grow farther and farther apart – until we would avoid each other if we crossed paths while shopping at Trader Joes.
Years later we may message each other on whichever social media apparatus has come into vogue.
“What happened to us… all those years ago?” Satan would ask.
“I don’t know. I was being immature. I thought that since I had formed a religious dictatorship and a cult of personality that I didn’t have to deal with my problems any more.”
“You just kind of disappeared.”
“I know. But I’m here now. Do you want to get a cup of coffee and catch up?” I would ask. Satan would send a smiley emoticon.
“I would like that. I would like that a lot,” he would say.
I would push back from my computer and remember the good old days of watching cage matches with Satan and taking shots with Kanye and Jeff Goldblum. Then I would make two of my acolytes fight to the death for my amusement.

~ ~ ~

Thanks for taking part Eric! Readers: Click HERE to preview and purchase the outstanding novel, Immortal L.A. at Amazon – Stef wouldn’t steer you wrong…

The Winners! Stef's Captivating Opening Competition

The results of the Captivating Opening competition that I staged during January thru March are now in!

The selection procedure relied upon grabbing my attention as I swiftly browsed the Amazon previews of books ... much like one does in a bookstore.

I'd like to thank all who took part and sincerely lament that the final choices were very hard to make and many entries missed the cut by a mere hair.

Okay, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but it was very edifying – I was surprised at the sheer number of captivating openings even though the competition had been hotly contested.

The Winner is… *roll of drums*:

Layla Roy has defied the fates. Despite being born under an inauspicious horoscope, she is raised to be educated and independently-minded by her eccentric Anglophile grandfather, Dadamoshai. And, by cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb—a man betrothed to another. All were minor miracles in India that spring of 1943, when young women’s lives were predetermined—if not by the stars, then by centuries of family tradition and social order.

Layla’s life as a newly married woman takes her away from home and into the jungles of Assam, where the world’s finest tea thrives on plantations run by native labor and British efficiency. Fascinated by this curious culture of whiskey-soaked ex-pat adventurers who seem fazed by neither earthquakes nor man-eating leopards, she struggles to find her place among the prickly English wives with whom she is expected to socialize, and the peculiar servants she now finds under her charge.

But navigating the hazards of tea-garden society will hardly be her biggest challenge. For even Layla’s remote home is not safe from the incendiary change sweeping India on the heels of the Second World War. Their colonial world is at a tipping point as tectonic political shifts rock the tea industry, and Layla and Manik find themselves caught in a perilous racial divide that threatens their very lives.

~ ~ ~

The three runners up (in no particular order) are… *more rolling of drums*

Thanks guys for grabbing me with your salient narratives!

~ ~ ~

Next up we will be featuring Shona Patel as the author, a bright new star in literary ascendancy. Even for this typical Englishman, tea will never be the same again after reading such a captivating tale!

Stef’s "Captivating Opening" Competition

Entries now closed.

A huge thanks to all who entered this fun competition; I'm sure it will be very engrossing as I finally pare down the shortlisted - and for those who do not make the cut: Remember - judging always has a subjective element and this fun initiative has just Stef's opinion.

Thanks again all!

Without a doubt, the most important component of a novel is its opening – for unless you get the reader immersed and on board from the get-go they will quickly move on to the next (free) preview available on book sites such as Amazon’s. And this was the case even before the advent of electronic publishing. In bookstores, readers will perhaps read the blurb on the jacket and then open the book and read the first few paragraphs before either opting to buy or putting it back on the shelf.

So, with this in mind I am staging a fun competition, the prize comprising a 3-day promotion package from our sister site BookTweetingService.com worth $81 and also a featured article on WriteIntoPrint.com, which attracts thousands of readers every week. We are also awarding three runners up prizes of a 1-day promo worth $29.

The entry process is simple: In the comments field below, post the Title and Author name of your own novel, or one you recommend, and Stef will read the opening, much like he would in a bookstore or when buying a novel from Amazon (by using their “click to look inside” facility).

There is no point in multiple posting, or even recommending one already entered, because the object is to get Stef to read the opening (this is not a vote-oriented competition). Closing date for submissions is 1st March 2014, the winners to be announced (here) in mid March and featured on WriteIntoPrint.com in April. The 3-day promotion package can be used on any three days during 2014, either separately or all together. For nominated entries, the prizes and adjudication are subject to the author’s approval, of course.

The novel must be on Amazon Kindle to qualify.

Keep it simple in the comments field: just the Title and Author name – Stef will ignore any blurb, including on Amazon, and will get straight to reading the opening in Amazon’s preview.

No correspondence will be entered into, so no daft questions, please...and please don’t post your email in the comments field or you will be spammed by third parties. Stef will either contact the winners direct via their platform or invite the winners to contact us via our email address when the winners are announced.

To see all the entries click "Load More" at the very bottom of the comments page.

Good Luck!

Please g+1 the competition below :-)

Editor's Choice ~ Blake is The New BLACK!

I have managed to discover another candidate for my coveted Editor’s Choice award.

Although I have only awarded the accolade to a mere handful of pukka new authors over the last two years, I find myself – yet again – lauding the work of the irrepressible Russell Blake and his new series, which chronicles the ups and downs of a Hollywood private investigator and his less than ‘useful others’.

Ladies, gentlemen, and hermaphrodites, I give you BLACK – well, actually, Blake penned this hilarious and well-furnished series, but I have been hanging on RB’s coat tails since heralding him as the ‘new black’ in authors after reading The Geronimo Breach back in 2011 (see my articles: Author Finds ~ Russell Blake, Paradigm Author 2012 ~ and What a Difference a Year Makes...).

And connections have disclosed that Blake has even more surprises in store in the near future – so watch this space... but first go out and grab the BLACK series and find out why Blake has become the most ascendant and prolific author during the last two years.

*Update* Wow... Blake has been featured in the Wall St. Journal and his surprise is now out > (co-writing with Clive Cussler!)

*Breaking News!* The Clive Cussler and Russell Blake adventure The Eye of Heaven is available for pre-order HERE! Orders are already flooding in for this collaboration and I fully expect that Cussler fans will warm quickly to Russell Blake's contributions to characterization, description and interaction.

Baffin Island: Husband-and-wife team Sami and Remi Fargo are on a climate-control expedition in the Arctic, when to their astonishment they discover a Viking ship in the ice, perfectly preserved—and filled with pre–Columbian artifacts from Mexico.

How can that be? As they plunge into their research, tantalizing clues about a link between the Vikings and the legendary Toltec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl—and a fabled object known as the Eye of Heaven—begin to emerge. But so do many dangerous people. Soon the Fargos find themselves on the run through jungles, temples, and secret tombs, caught between treasure hunters, crime cartels, and those with a far more personal motivation for stopping them. At the end of the road will be the solution to a thousand-year-old mystery—or death. Click HERE for more details.

*Update* And if you need any more confirmation that "Stef wouldn't steer you wrong" take a look at this article from the hallowed British newspaper, The Times!

*Update* Click HERE to listen to RB as he bares all in his latest candid radio interview.


I’m sure you’d all love to have RB visit here again with his ruminations and observations, so I will see if I can ply him with tequila sometime next year and get him to help me put the world to rights in a random (and drunken) article about Life, the Universe, and coffee vendors.

Oh, and if you want a great action series for Kindle, I strongly recommend the JET series ~ preview and purchase from Amazon. It's also available at all leading distributors, of course.

Barefoot in the Snow ~ a Christmas short story by Stef Mcdaid

Barefoot in the Snow

Living in a caravan perched on an old industrial tipping ground may not sound idyllic, but this particular dump was a cut above the previous ones. My dad had sited the van near a derelict farmhouse, and hooked it up to the electric main. He leeched the water supply from an old cow trough, and the pipe that lay above the frozen shale would thaw by late afternoon – on a bright day.
I liked it in Oldbury, and felt relieved to be invisible amid the obscurity of a large, impersonal school. A murky green canal ran alongside the half mile track that led to our home. The boatmen were a friendly crew, and during the school holiday I would go down to the locks, stamping circles into the ice-topped puddles along the way.

The weighbridge man greeted me with his usual caveat as I passed by his window. “You watch yerself, now – fall in that cut and you’ll be poisoned before you drown.”
I suppose he had a point; the narrow-boats ferried toxic waste from the same industrial heart of England that inspired Tolkein to write of Isengard and Mordor. The Birmingham of 1967 was equally intoxicating.

It wasn’t long before an open narrow-boat arrived, steam rising up from its noxious liquid cargo into the fresh winter air. I waved down to Dusty Jim as he wound the windlass to close the lock paddle.
His leathery face broke into a mellow smile. “Morning, young-un, I expect you’d be looking for a ride?”
I beamed my reply, and felt my head nodding in approval.
Jim laughed. “That’ll be a yes then, I reckon. Well, you’ll have to wait awhile – takes twenty flipping minutes for this lock to fill right up.”
The narrow-boat had seen finer times. Now, since put to pasture on the dark green waters of the Birmingham canal system. Blisters of rust erupted where the rivets held the steel skin together. The engine was sweet, though, according to Jim: “Sweeter than a toffee apple…never let me down.”
As we entered the wide marina I felt in my pocket for the slate stones collected on the way. The trick was to flick your wrist as you let go, watching it skim once, twice, thrice, hoping for a seven.
Jim tutted. “Oooh! I thought you’d have got at least a six out of that one. Try keeping your elbow in a bit.”
I pursed my lips and took Jim-of-the-twelve-skims’ advice. I turned on my heel as the slate spun out of my hand and skittered across the water – and skittered – and skittered. Yes!
Then eight!
Jim was grinning fit to swallow his ears. “You’ll soon get the dozen, young-un, now you’ve got the knack.”
Two sevens and a six quickly followed before we left the marina for tighter waters, where the frost-dew clung to the hedges and beaded the intricate spiders’ webs.

We heard the toot of the Cutty Sark. Jim hit the whistle in response and Bert came steadily about, steering his Oxford blue clipper alongside.
Jim gave Bert a wink. “The young-un requests permission to come aboard the Cutty Sark.”
Bert peered at me. “Well…as long as he doesn’t chatter me ears off all the way to Oldbury.”
Bert took pride in the Cutty Sark; his putrid cargo was contained in a thirty-foot butty, which followed obediently in our wake. Bert had many a tale to tell, and I was a good listener, lapping up the rich history that surrounded the hub of the Gas Street Basin. More canal miles than in Venice, Bert said.

He lifted me onto the towpath when we reached the lock by the weighbridge. “Christmas eve tomorrow, young-un,” he looked sideways at the low clouds rolling in above the horizon, “and it looks like snow.”
I waved Bert goodbye and headed for home. Santa. I’d often wondered how he’d got into our caravan. We didn’t have a chimney and the skylight was too small for me to get through – and Santa was quite fat. Maybe if I pretended to be asleep I could solve this mystery, but then there was a risk he wouldn’t fill my stocking.

My mum smiled at the look of shock on my face as she answered the door. “What d’you think, chuck?” she asked, caressing her new hairdo. “It’s Clairol Nice ’n’ Easy.”
I smiled. It did look rather glamorous.
“Your dad’s back tomorrow night, think he’ll like it?”
I nodded affirmation. Blondes have more fun, after all.

Recovering scrap metal from old commercial dumps was very lucrative during the Sixties. After leaving Donegal at the age of fourteen to dig our ditches, Dad had learned to drive every monstrous machine on the M1 motorway project. He soon got to grips with the huge metal-sifting plants and occasionally went abroad to help set up the mobile rigs. The dragline cranes could bite two-ton chunks at a time to feed the hungry hoppers, and within a year it would be time for us to move on to another site.

Christmas Eve and still no snow. The looming clouds taunted every hopeful young boy, until the early dusk sent them scurrying into their houses to fill the restless hours before bedtime. Mum sat in her chair and a casserole sat in the oven – both waiting for Dad. Most nine-year-olds would be fast asleep by the time my dad rolled in from the pub.
I slept in the bottom bunk-bed when my sister visited our Irish granny. It would be strange, Nod not being here for Christmas. My parents hadn’t believed her when she told them that I could talk as an infant, until they listened from behind the door. Nothing much had changed. I could only share my thoughts with Nod, my comrade-in-arms. Things had simmered down of late, though.
I liked to imagine Wild West cowboy escapades when drifting off to sleep. Skirmishing with the Apaches, like in the films my dad watched. Nobody got shot, we’d just chase each other around on horseback until I slipped into a dream – it kept the shadow-men at bay.
Santa woke me up in the middle of the night. He sneaked away before I dared to look, but a dark shape in the corner of the bedroom confirmed the visitation. I closed my eyes and became the Milky Bar Kid, shooting holes in silver dollars and throwing my lasso, to the delight of my cowboy audience…

Christmas morning. Ignoring the presents, I dashed through the kitchen and into the living room to find my mum and dad still asleep in the pull-out sofa bed. I crept back into my bedroom to examine the contents of the pillowcase-cum-stocking that Santa had left for me. That was when I noticed the plump flakes of snow slanting past the window. I looked out over the sprawling wasteland, now transformed into a winter wonderland. If only Nod could see it.
Breakfast followed the tradition we had on Sundays. My job was to peel the horse-mushrooms and Dad fried them with rashers, eggs and black pudding. Mum washed and dried the aftermath. The radiogram played carols as we unwrapped our presents. My dad got Old Spice and I had a clockwork train set, two exotic looking cars, and a giant bar of Toblerone with strange writing on the packaging. Dad offered me a game of ‘hard knuckles’. I accepted and retired after a few bruising exchanges, then asked if I could go out to play.
“Sure you can,” he replied. “Tell you what, I’ll bet you ten shillings you can’t outrun me, barefoot in the snow.”
I was taken aback. I mean, where had this idea come from? I pondered for a while. He had a distinct advantage in wrestling and ‘hard knuckles’, but I’d never seen him run before.
I cleared my throat. “I’ve only threepence.”
He laughed at this. “Okay, I’ll set my ten-bob note against your threepence, say what?”
A bone-crunching handshake sealed the wager and we were soon on our way, loping along the familiar route to the canal locks. It wasn’t long before the effects of sixty smokes and a bottle of scotch per day became apparent, and so I slowed the pace as the snow-covered path grew steeper. Funny, but my feet didn’t feel all that cold after the first quarter mile. Dad was a sight, with his shock of auburn hair bobbing as he wheezed his way to a more level footing.
“Will we stop for a while, boy?” he asked. “I need to take a leak.”
There we both stood, in the back of beyond, tracing tracks of lemon in the pure white snow. A warm, glowing moment between father and son.
“You ready to go home yet, boy?”
I shook my head, and off we trotted along the rutted way to the locks. Credit to Dad, he didn’t give in easily and he struggled alongside me until we reached the marina. At the bank, I took a flat stone from my pocket and gave it everything I had as it spun from my hand. Seven skims.
Dad whistled his approval. “Not bad at all, laddy. Have you any more of those stones?”
I had a pocketful. Always did. By the time the stones ran out we had tied with eight skims apiece. Dad lit up a Gold Leaf and asked did I want to give up the race.
“No, Dad. Let’s go on to the locks.”
“Call it a draw then, boy?” He smiled as though he already knew what my answer would be, and then finally capitulated on the condition that I ate some of my sprouts before laying into the dark and sticky Christmas pudding.

I never did get the princely sum of ten shillings, nor did I ever match the tally of Jim-of-the-twelve-skims, but something had passed between us while barefoot in the snow, and it filled my heart with fire.