The Ghost Ship: a special offcut from The Ghost Squad

When I originally wrote The Ghost Squad, as part of my creative practice PhD, I also wrote a very short story called ‘The Ghost Ship’, which is mentioned in the novel as having been written in pre-Pulse days by Link, one of the devoted followers of ‘Hermes’, whose unpublished manuscript about the Hermes group appears as extracts throughout the book. Though it wasn’t included in the published novel (unlike in the PhD, where it appears as an appendix only) I thought readers might be interested to see it here. ‘The Ghost Ship’ is a story nested within a story nested within another story: because not only is it purportedly written by a fictional character in my novel, but also it is about another fictional writer creating a story while on an overnight stay in what may be a haunted house, the manor house of Fitton Howe.

You may also be interested to know that the ‘Fitton Howe’ of the short story is inspired by the famous, evocative archaeological site of Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk in the UK, which I visited back in 2017 when I was in Cambridge on a month-long stay as a visiting scholar, during my PhD. (The site has recently also been the setting for a recent film called The Dig, which appeared on Netflix, but which does not mention the story of the spooky aspect of the extraordinary discovery of the buried ship, which you can read about here.)

Photo by Sophie Masson of replica of Sutton Hoo helmet at Sutton Hoo museum, 2017(original helmet held in British Museum)

The Ghost Ship

By ‘Link’

She’d often sat at that window, looking out at the ancient burial mounds, twenty of them or more, some mere shrugs of the ground, others like humped backs, that dotted the green fields in front of Fitton Howe Hall. She was missing her husband, dead these several years, his body not placed in a mound like his distant ancestors might have been, with all their worldly goods beside them, ready for their journey into the afterlife, but instead resting in a quiet churchyard. His spirit however was still here; and she spoke to it, frequently, alone or in the company of the medium who had become her closest friend. She had never seen his shade, though she longed to; but if ever he came back to her, it would be here, in this place he’d loved so much…

She stiffened. Someone was walking around the mounds. Yet her view of the fields commanded entry and exit and she had seen no-one coming. She couldn’t make out the figure well, only that it was a man, tall, with longer hair than was surely normal, dressed in a smock or tunic and leggings. It could be a local farm labourer or a gypsy perhaps, with that hair—but then he turned and she saw a flash of gold at his throat and a glint of silver at his waist and she knew instantly that she was looking at someone else. He stood there, outlined in the sunlight, not ghostly, but somehow not quite solid either and then he looked straight at her and made a strange gesture, a gesture that afterwards she could hardly describe but which she understood to mean, Do not be afraid.

And that’s how it started. That’s how Mrs Violet Manning, bereaved widow of a dearly beloved man whose passionate nature had given her too few years of delirious happiness before his untimely death, a man she could not bring herself to acknowledge was lost to her for ever, became the chosen vessel for the return of a long-dead king, a king so wealthy and honoured he had been buried not only with all his gold and silver and precious objects, but held in the embrace of his favourite ship, a massive vessel that had been dragged from its mooring place in the tidal river to here, miles inland.

The ghost ship. That’s what the press called it, when the archaeologists uncovered it after centuries in the sandy soil. Its imprint was still there, fixed in the sand like an ancient X-ray, dotted here and there with rusted rivets, the ghostly ribs suggesting the vessel whose material substance had sailed into the afterlife with its kingly captain at the helm. The king who had vanished into the misty lands beyond death but who had left behind, as a marker, the trove of treasure and a powerful mask of gold and silver that was to become famous the world over as a mysterious image of his vanished people. His people’s vision of the afterlife was reassuringly secure. Beyond death was a calm harbour where the great burial ship, with its kingly captain steering, would have moored, to be received with honour. In that world were meadows and woods and rivers and villages and great halls, just as in this one. His departed family would have met him, his ancestors, his vanished warriors and friends. Here he would have been happy and honoured as in life but freed of life’s cares. Some say this king kept to the old faith of his ancestors; others that he had taken the faith of Christ, others that he mixed the two. Whatever the truth, he was at peace, in the world beyond, even if the living world he had left behind had forgotten him. So why had he come back? Violet always said it wasn’t in fact the king who had stood on the mound that morning but one of his trusted warriors, sent by his lord from the afterlife with a message to a country teetering on the brink of war. Do not be afraid; wars have come and gone in this land. Be steadfast; your ancestors stand with you. Or that’s what she believed. Whatever the truth, she had certainly done what no-one else had: she had triggered a discovery so stupendous that for a few days it distracted the entire country from the sinister drums beating in the distance over the sea and getting closer, closer…As the archaeologists raced to secure the site and its treasures so it would be safe from harm, Violet watched from her seat by the window, and never had she felt her husband’s presence so close.

The countryside here is green, flat, peaceful, secretive. Though it’s known as a valley of kings, it’s not in truth a valley, though it lies by a river. It’s a place of contrasts: there are fertile crop fields and pig farms ressembling villages of free-ranging swine; there are quiet corners in little woods where you can pick up stone axeheads and shards of ancient pottery, the detritus of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, imperial ages, tribal kingdoms, settled societies, industrial ages—and further back, much further back, fossils from the time when humans did not rule the earth, and were not even a twinkle in God’s eye, and…

Thornley put his pen down, startled by a sudden noise. A creak, above his head. But he was alone in this house. He knew he was. He’d paid enough for the privilege. The trust which ran this place made sure of that. They might say that Mrs Violet Manning’s memory might live on in her house, even hint that it was haunted, but they made sure that writers after ambience and ghost hunters after sensation did more than pay lip service to it. Thornley had spent one night here. So far there had been nothing special to disturb his work. And today was a bright sunny day. Not a day for any self-respecting ghost, he thought, lip curling, as he gazed at the photograph of Violet Manning, over the mantelpiece, looking somewhere into the distance. Neither she nor anyone else haunted this place. Fitton Howe House was like any other old museum house where nobody lives any more. But it was his stock in trade, to build up atmosphere, tension, so that his readers would feel something was about to happen. Yes, that was it. He’d use the creak, and his own startlement, to add the right touch.

…and people who come to Fitton Howe House still report seeing things. Hearing things. The flash of a sword, in the morning mist. The muffled shouts of men, the gleam of gold, the creak of oars, as the ghost ship begins its journey to the afterlife laden with treasure. In her book Violet Manning says that….

The creak came again. A creak, followed by a squeak. Thornley half-rose from his seat, heart beating a little faster, till he realised what it must be. Mice! The trust might keep the place neat and tidy but it couldn’t shut out all life. Little, secret life, darting insects and scuttling spiders and nesting mice. How many of those so-called reports were down to the creatures who lived in the holes and nooks and crannies of the house?

This piece was due tomorrow. That’s why he’d shut himself away here. No distractions. He’d already missed one deadline. His editor would not let him miss another.

…says that the old king was full of sorrow when his favourite son died at sea and that it broke his heart so that he died and sailed off in the ghost ship to meet him. This what her medium friend had told her, claiming he’d spoken to the king’s shade. It’s a nice story, with the ring of poetry but sadly not a shred of evidence to….

 Creak. Creak. Squeak. Thump. Not mice, with that noise. Rats. Thornley had never liked rats. He got up and closed all the doors that led into the room. They couldn’t get in, then. Then he banged on the walls. Just to make sure they knew he was there. He’d been so quiet, writing, that the rodents probably thought no-one was in and they could have a party. A rat party. Imagine that! He shuddered as an image came into his mind. Rats on a sinking ship, clinging to the wreckage–or cosying up to the dead in a buried ship, coming closer and closer and closer…

Stop it, he told himself. You’ll be seeing ghosts next. Like Mrs Violet Manning. Who only saw what she wanted to see. The pictures in her mind, a product of grief and suggestion. After all, everyone knew Fitton Howe had once been a burial place, long, long ago. Finding the ghost ship—that had been a happy accident, a fluke of history.

Yes. He felt calmer. He took up the pen again.

…not a shred of evidence to prove why or how the old king died. Or even if he was the one who had been buried there, in his ship, setting sail into the afterlife sunset, crewed by a ghostly band who had been sent for him from beyond death itself.

The creaks were louder now. The thumps. The squeaks. And now voices. He couldn’t hear what they said. Or at least understand. The language they spoke, it wasn’t English. Not quite. The sound was stranger, older. There was a smell now, too. Not a rodent smell, but something made up of wood, pitch, iron. And dust. The dust of ages. Of centuries. Of millennia. It filled his nostrils. Clogged his throat. The door handles rattled. The lights went out. He could not see anything but he knew they were coming. Coming for him, in their ghost ship. His breath rattled. His chest tightened. He groped for the lifesaver on his desk. It wasn’t there. They would…

Fitton Howe, Monday

Bestselling author Thornley Gordon was found dead this morning at Fitton Howe House, where he had been working on his latest publication. It is believed he died of an acute asthma attack. Tragically, the inhaler that might have saved his life was just out of reach, having rolled under his desk. Though there is no suggestion that anyone else was in the house at the time, police are puzzled as to why Mr Gordon’s unfinished manuscript was stained with what appeared to be salt water.

Photo taken by Sophie Masson at Sutton Hoo house, 2017


Looking both ways…

Tomorrow, together with renowned artist Angus Nivison, I will be leading a workshop for Arts North West called ‘Looking Both Ways’ which will be pairing artists and writers to produce jointly-inspired works: image to text, and text to image.

It’s come out of a fabulous Arts North West project in 2019 called Art Word Place, which similarly paired artists and writers. That though was about artists creating works inspired by writers’ words: in my and Angus’ case, I wrote a poem called Sky Dramas, New England, and Angus created a painting inspired by it called But in the Dry (based on the second stanza of the poem, which was fuelled by the terrible drought we were in the midst of at the time. )

This new project however is indeed ‘looking both ways’ as writers will create writing based on artists’ work and artists will create works based on writers’ words. Aside from Angus and I, eleven professional local writers and eleven professional local artists will be taking part in it. It’s a two-part workshop, with tomorrow’s concentrating on setting everything up and beginning paired projects and a final one on April 17 where completed works will be presented to the group. It’s going to be an amazing experience!

Photos below are of me and Angus at Art Word Place; my poem from that project; and Angus’ painting inspired by it.

Delighted to be featured on Story Scoop!

Delighted to be one of the featured creators in the latest episode of Story Scoop, the fabulous joint initiative between the Children’s Book Council of Australia, NSW branch and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ANZ. Story Scoop episodes are in three parts, and in this one, it features author Oliver Phommavanh talking about his humorous middle-grade books in Middle Grade Magic, illustrator Serena Geddes talking about her creative process in Illustrator Corner, and myself, in Picture Book Nook, talking about the inspiration and creation of my latest, very seasonal picture book, Santagram (illustrated by Shiloh Gordon and published by Little Hare). Lots of fun to make the clip and lots of fun to be part of this project–thank you so much, CBCA NSW and SCBWI ANZ, for the opportunity.

Watch the video here:

Launching Fox and Chook Creative Activity Pack for families, schools and libraries

I’m absolutely delighted today to announce the launch of a fabulous brand-new creative activity pack for children and their families, carers, schools and libraries, which I’ve created with Kathy Creamer, a good friend of mine who’s a fantastic illustrator. It’s called the Fox and Chook Creative Activity Pack and is themed around, you guessed it, foxes and chooks (for non-Australians, that means chickens!)

This gorgeous pack, which is presented as a downloadable PDF, includes lots of fun activities: from lots of creative writing exercises to colouring-in pages; from looking at and discussing classic paintings to discovering fabulous facts about foxes and chooks; from listening online to a fun fox and chook story(one of mine) to sculpting your own fox and chook out of modelling clay, from sharing real-life stories of foxes and chooks to learning how to draw them and to make your own shadow puppets–and more!

You can access the full activity pack directly here on my blog: Fox and chook creative activity pack by Sophie Masson and Kathy Creamer full final or from the special page on Sophie Masson Presents, where you will not only find the full pack but also the colouring pages as a separate PDF to download and print out easily.

Please note that this activity pack is copyright to me and Kathy Creamer. Till September 30, it is available free for families, schools and libraries to download, use and print, but must not be extracted or reproduced without written permission and acknowledgement of authorship and cannot be sold or used commercially by any entity or individual.

Kathy and I would like to thank the fantastic New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) in Armidale, for kindly researching paintings in their collections for the Foxes and Chooks in Art section of the pack, and for giving us permission to include images of them. We would also like to acknowledge Christmas Press and illustrator David Allan for images from Two Trickster Tales from Russia and photographer Nathan Anderson for the wonderful fox photo on title page (photo available free to download on Unsplash).

So have a look, check it all out–and hope you enjoy! And as we’d love to see your creative responses to these exercises, do tag me if you decide to put them up on social media. You can tag me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And you can contact me via this blog, or via the contact form at Sophie Masson Presents. You can contact Kathy here.

 

 

 

A serendipitous meeting and a discovery about a treasured manuscript

I was really delighted yesterday to meet the wonderful Dr Joko Susilo, world-renowned dhalang (master of traditional Javanese shadow-puppetry, the wayang kulit) , who’s been Artist in Residence at UNE  for the last few weeks. An eighth-generation dhalang from Cenral Java, Joko has been based in New Zealand for some time, and travels around the world to give performances, talks and other presentations.
I contacted Joko to show him one of my family treasures: a rare, handwritten Javanese-language ‘Boekoe Pedalangan’ or ‘Book of Puppetry’, which my French parents, who were very interested in the wayang kulit and Javanese culture generally, bought when they were living and working in Java in the late 50’s and early 60’s (and where I was born). I’ve always been in awe of this book, and was thrilled when my father gave it to me a couple of years ago, but I have  wanted for a while to ask someone who knew what they were looking at to let me know me more information about the book. Well, Joko was absolutely the perfect person, as he is not only a practitioner but also a respected scholar of the extraordinary and magical art of wayang kulit.
He was very interested indeed in the manuscript and I learned quite a bit about it from him as he leafed through it: that it came from the Central Javanese city of Solo(which like Yogya is at the heart of Javanese traditional culture), that it was written in High (literary) Javanese by a professional dhalang, someone well-educated and highly-literate–not very common at the time, Joko thought it might possibly have been someone who worked within the kraton, the palace, of Solo– and that it contains the full script, including narration, instructions to puppeteers and gamelan orchestra, as well as actual gamelan notation, for a famous epic wayang kulit play which goes on all night (at least 9 hours long).
As well as that, there is a shorter section at the back, which Joko revealed is actually an unusual collection of traditional Javanese magic charms and spells. The charms are for all sorts of purposes including one, Joko was amused to discover, against sleepiness (sleepiness being an occupational hazard of course for dhalangs who are performers of all-night plays!) He confirmed that this is indeed a very rare book, especially given its excellent state of preservation(my parents having very carefully looked after it for decades, ever since they first got it and of course I’ve done the same). So fantastic to learn more about this treasure–and Joko is keen to transcribe the book in its entirety at some stage, which is wonderful!

Short overview video about my life in writing and publishing

I’ve just uploaded a short video I made, based on some presentations I’ve made recently, which is a bit of an overview of my life and career in writing and publishing. Hope you enjoy…

The original background music by the way is by my very talented son Bevis Masson-Leach, aka music producer Papertoy.

My article on maintaining a literary career, now published in TEXT

What’s it really like maintaining a literary career, especially in a regional area? What role do literary organisations like writers’ groups and writers’ centres play? In Wearing many hats: literary creative practice in New England, an article of mine which has just been published in the prestigious journal TEXT, I explore these and other aspects of the regional creative life through my own experiences and the experiences of other local creators, through interviews I conducted.

Hope you enjoy reading it!

 

The Hollow Bones : an interview with Leah Kaminsky

Today I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Leah Kaminsky. Leah is an award-winning Australian writer whose published work includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her second novel, The Hollow Bones, has just come out with Penguin Random House Australia. Set just before World War Two, The Hollow Bones tells an extraordinary, gripping story of obsession and ambition, recreating a bizarre SS-sponsored expedition made by German scientists to Tibet, aimed at proving the Himalayan origins of the ‘Aryan race’. With its beautiful evocations of nature and complexity of characterisation juxtaposed with chilling depictions of Nazi racism and lunatic ideas in action, this is a potent novel which explores many disturbing themes, with a light yet deep touch.

First of all, Leah, congratulations on the publication of The Hollow Bones! It’s an amazing and memorable novel and must have taken a great deal of work. Can you tell us something about its genesis, and how you went about researching the background of the novel?

Thanks for those kind words, Sophie. It really has been an interesting journey researching and writing THE HOLLOW BONES over the last 3-4 years. I first came across the material that sparked the idea behind the book while researching my last novel, THE WAITING ROOM, in which I touched on the critical role physicians played in the Third Reich during WWII. As a doctor myself, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of science, so I was gobsmacked when I stumbled across World Ice Theory, or Welteislehre, a pseudoscientific idea postulated by a steam train engineer, Hanns Hörbinger, that became the platform of the Reich in the 1930s, embraced by the German populace as well as high ranking politicians such as Himmler and Hitler. The Nazis banned the teaching of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on the basis that it was considered ‘Jewish science’. The ice crystal became known as the building block of the universe, based on a bogus belief that the sun was the only star in the sky. Hörbinger postulated that an icy moon crashed to earth thousands of years ago, destroying the civilisation of Atlantis, which lay buried under the Himalayas. I was fascinated and horrified to learn of a German expedition to Tibet of a group of SS scientists, sponsored by Himmler himself, sought to uncover the true origins of the Nordic Aryan race amongst the Tibetan peoples. This little-known story of their leader, 26- year-old zoologist Ernst Schäfer, drew me in as I tried to imagine what sort of man would go to such lengths in the pursuit of academic success and admiration of his peers.

Main character Ernst Schäfer is a complex person—a lover of nature and a ruthless hunter, a man who can show a kind of tenderness towards people like his wife’s disabled sister Margarete, yet whose cold ambition leads him to appalling acts; a man of science who dissents privately about the ridiculous ‘scientific’ theories of the Nazis yet who is quite prepared to serve the regime for his own benefit. Tells us something about how you created his character.

I wanted to look at the complexity of someone growing up in pre-War Germany, and the inherent moral choices confronting individuals as they witnessed the dramatic changes taking place around them. Ernst Schäfer, a forgotten character in history, spent most afternoons of his childhood exploring the forest of Thuringia which lay on the edge of his tiny village. Early on, he became a keen collector and hunter, filling his room with a menagerie of creatures. I was interested to see how this childhood innocence and passion for nature could go so terribly wrong. I read widely, looking at the history of the Third Reich and the SS through personal stories. I painstakingly translated Schäfer’s books, field diaries and letters from the original German, my research taking me to dark places I have always been fearful of exploring. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I went way past my comfort zone in an attempt to examine what leads a man to tread the treacherous terrain of moral compromise. I trawled the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, finding photos, documents and even detailed equipment lists and invoices for Schafer’s earlier expeditions to Tibet.

‘Science is pure and elegant in itself, not a pony to be ridden around a circus ring,’ Ernst tells a scoffing Bruno, a fellow researcher and member of the expedition, at one point. Yet despite this lofty private attitude, Ernst publicly kowtows to Nazi pseudoscience to further his own obsessions and ambitions. It’s a perfect example of what happens when the line between science and politics is blurred too far. Can you expand on that?

Yes. I think that’s what struck me so much about these little-known events. Even though it all happened in pre-war Germany and Tibet, it is so relevant today. The story of the corruption that occurs when science and politics become bedfellows is still palpable today, with contemporary debates raging around climate change and sustainability, as well as animal rights. 

The juxtaposition between Nazi Germany and traditional Tibet is very striking: how did you go about evoking those very different settings and atmosphere?

I initially applied for funding that might enable me to travel to Berlin and Tibet to help with research. When the funding didn’t come through I thought I might need to drop the project. Then I remembered the words of my dear, late friend, the painter Yosl Bergner, who told me he could never visit the places he painted as it would ruin his imagined vision of them. I realised then that the places I was writing about no longer existed – their histories couldn’t be suspended in time. So, I set about visiting Tibet and Germany of the 1930s through books, photos and old film recordings, in a kind of virtual tour of the imagination. This brought my settings to life for me. In a strange way, I think literature lets you visit places that no longer exist. I think visiting modern-day Tibet and Germany may have spoilt my initial vision.

The passages featuring the enigmatic and touching figure of Panda, taken from Wild to be in the Glass country, lend a touch of whimsical fantasy which nevertheless has a serious purpose. Can you tell us something about that?

I visited the library at Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia while I was on my US book tour for The Waiting Room. While I was there, I walked around the dioramas and was shown through the archives and storage in the basement. I came across a four-month-old taxidermied panda that Ernst Schäfer had shot on one of his earlier joint American-German expeditions to Tibet. I felt so sad learning about the background to how this panda ended up at the museum. Several months later, I was at Varuna, the Writer’s House, on a fellowship I was awarded by the wonderful magazine Griffith Review. The tiny voice of Panda insisted on being heard. I tried to ignore it at first, thinking it was a bit strange to have a stuffed animal’s POV I the book, but it took over and became the beating heart of the novel.

Most of the characters in the novel are based on real historical figures—not only Ernst, his team, and his wife Herta, but also major Nazi leaders of the most monstrous kind. What kinds of challenges did you find in recreating encounters such as those Ernst has with Himmler and Göring?

The biggest challenge really was to find the voice of Schäfer’s first wife, Herta. I found so much information about all the other real-life characters, which enabled me to inhabit them relatively easily. I was very aware of not wanting to make them caricatures – they needed to mirror my protagonist, Ernst Schäfer. Herta was the only one who seemed to have disappeared entirely from history. This was in reality a gift, because it allowed me to imagine who she might have been – a woman with a moral conscience living inside an ideological nightmare, watching the man she loved make choices she disagreed with. She and Panda are the only true fictional characters in the book, and also play the role of moral commentators, checking the emotional temperature of those around them.

Many prominent Nazis, especially but not only Himmler, were greatly influenced by fringe and occult elements: by esoteric mish-mash philosophers, quack anthropologists, amateur mythologists, self-proclaimed psychics and mystics and so on, as well as pseudo-scientists. How did you research this aspect of the regime, and how do you think this occult attraction fed into their racist, supremacist ideology?

Reading about the wackiness of all these pseudoscientific and occult beliefs, held by leaders such as Himmler and Hitler, sometimes had me laughing out loud. Until, that is, I began to understand the powerful impact these ideas had on the Reich’s platform which upheld expansionism, racist ideology, genocide, as well as forced sterilisation and involuntary euthanasia of those with mental health issues and disabilities. The Ahnenerbe, or Ancestral heritage organisation, established in 1935 under the auspices of Himmler as an offshoot of the SS, was dedicated to proving that Germans were direct descendants of the Nordic Aryan race, which fed directly into Nazi ideology and its gruesome results. The existence of a school that trained dogs to ‘talk’ and tap out the alphabet, so they could participate in espionage for the gestapo, sounds like something straight out of a comedy, but Hitler took all this very seriously. The slippery slope of #fakefacts into popular belief is especially evident today.

The Nazis became, at least in the West, an image of pure evil, an aberrant and alien phenomenon. That image could distract from the reality of what happened—and make people complacent. And sometimes was evoked inappropriately, lessening the impact of that reality. Today, as the generations to actually go through that period die and revisionists attempt to re-interpretations, how do you think society can guard against the threat of forgetfulness? Can we really learn from the past?

I don’t believe in the concept of pure good and pure evil. The most dangerous state to my mind is complacency and indifference. I think we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it. It frightens me that recent surveys show that 5% of people in the UK are outright Holocaust deniers. In the US, 65% of millennials and 41% of the general population have never heard of Auschwitz. I think education is the key to understanding our differences and engendering tolerance and compassion. And of course, as a writer, I believe in the power of literature to change people’s lives. The Nazis understood the power of the written word, so much so that they burnt books that didn’t fit their twisted world view.

 

Visit Leah’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook.

And on Twitter.

 

A favourite Christmas memory…

Last year, at this festive time, I republished a piece I’d written in English and French for a magazine, about my childhood Christmasses. This year, as a favourite Christmas memory, I thought I’d offer instead a magical Christmas story, The Dolls’ First Christmas, which was published in the Random House Australia anthology, Stories for Seven Year Olds(, edited by Linsay Knight, 2014). It was inspired by my very talented friend Fiona McDonald giving me a beautiful handmade doll she’d created–and who I immediately named Esmeralda, after one of my favourite characters in a favourite childhood book of mine, Le Capitaine Fracasse, by Theophile Gautier..

Hope you enjoy–and the very best of wishes to you all for the festive season!

The original Esmeralda

The Dolls’ First Christmas

by Sophie Masson

Christmas Eve in the toyshop. In Miss Jeffries’ toy-shop, the last delivery had just arrived. Teddy-bears and tin toys. Puppets and pull-alongs. Rocking-horses and doll’s houses. And Esmeralda.

She arrived in an ordinary box, like the other dolls:

Sarah and

Donna and

Laura and

Clara and

Gloria.

 

Gloria, haughty queen of the dolls in Miss Jeffries’ toy shop, sat on her glittering throne in the window. Everyone gasped when they saw Gloria and said how beautiful she was. But no-one had bought her yet. She was too special. She cost too much.

Esmeralda was beautiful too, but in a different way. Her hair wasn’t golden, like Gloria’s, but black, in great long curls. Her skin wasn’t peaches and cream, like Gloria’s, but honey and tea. Her eyes weren’t sky blue, but nut-brown. Her stripy dress was splendid—but she did not have elegant satin slippers, like Gloria. Her feet were bare.

Miss Jeffries smiled as she set Esmeralda up on green velvet. ‘There, now, ‘ she said. ‘We’ll have two Queens. A snow queen. And a sun queen. You’ll be friends.’

But can two queens really be friends? Gloria didn’t think so. Esmeralda didn’t think so. Each thought she was better. Each sat in her splendour and looked haughtily away and thought she would be the first to go.

It was a long busy day. Sarah and Clara and Laura and Donna left and two boy dolls and six tin toys and eight teddy-bears and three puppets and two fairy dolls and a mermaid doll and two clowns and four baby dolls, plus a brace of Barbies. But not Gloria. And not Esmeralda, either.

At last, and very late, Miss Jeffries was about to close up. A man rushed in, shouting, ‘I work for Mr Darling, the millionaire. He sent me to buy a Christmas gift for his daughter Cherie. Her mother’s dead and her father has no time. I need your best doll. Your very best doll.’

‘There are two,’ said Miss Jeffries, calmly. ‘Esmeralda, and Gloria. Which one would Cherie like best? Sun queen or snow queen?’

The man stared.  ‘Oh! I have no idea. But I know she’ll have a tantrum if she doesn’t like what I choose. She’s always having tantrums. Blow it. I’ll take the two.’

‘Good choice,’ beamed Miss Jeffries, ‘they belong together, no question.’ She put them in their boxes and tied a pretty ribbon around them and waved a cheerful goodbye as the man hurried out, muttering to himself, ‘After all, if that brat doesn’t like one of them, she can always give it to someone else. Or throw it away. They’re only dolls, after all.’

Poor Gloria and Esmeralda! They had been made with such care. Their dresses were hand-stitched, their hair hand-knotted, their faces hand-painted. They’d been made to be loved. And now here was someone saying they might just be thrown away, like some cheap, broken factory toy.

Dolls may not talk in words and their red satin hearts may not beat but they have other ways of communicating. Gloria and Esmeralda sensed each other’s fear. At first, each thought it didn’t matter. Whichever doll Cherie liked best would be safe. But then– what if Cherie got sick of her? She might be worse off, then. While the other one might have gone to a good home. To a little girl who loved her.

Most dolls are airheads, the space under their pretty china or plastic skulls quite hollow. But Gloria and Esmeralda had cloth faces, pulled tightly over wads of stuffing. In the middle of the stuffing, each had a long, bright pin, left in by mistake. So their thoughts were sharp and they each thought the same thing at the same moment. They were queens. Snow queen, sun queen. They might not be friends, but sometimes queens put rivalry aside for the good of all. They would do something together, not apart. But how?

 

At the Darling mansion, the man gave the boxes to the housekeeper. She took them to a room where a tall, twinkling Christmas tree stood, with piles of presents under it.  The housekeeper shook her head, sadly. ‘More things going to waste on that spoilt child,’ she said.

The dolls lay under the tree for hours. No clever ideas came to them. Soon, they knew, it would be too late.

And then, just after midnight, there was a clatter of hooves on the roof above. Moments later a deep voice grumbled, ‘Why do I come? She has so much already!’

Now all toys, no matter how new, know what happens Christmas night. So Esmeralda and Gloria knew the grumbler wasn’t Mr Darling, or any of his staff. It was that jolly visitor, come from a magical world, whose job is to give every child in the world a present. The humans call him Santa Claus.

The dolls’ red satin hearts swelled and the sharp pin in their heads glittered as they tried to struggle out and beg for his help. They only made a tiny rustle, but Santa Claus’ sharp ears pricked up. And his kind eyes, that see into the heart of every child everywhere, saw right into those two red satin hearts. With a little chuckle, he opened the boxes. He gazed in at Esmeralda and Gloria. ‘A Christmas gift for you, little ones?’ he said. He touched each of them, very gently. A warm, golden stream of light seemed to flow from his fingers, into the dolls’ painted eyes. ‘Very well, then. I give you the power of love. And a very merry Christmas to you both.’

And with that, he was gone. The dolls heard the clatter of his reindeer’s hooves on the roof, then nothing. They waited in the warm piney darkness, filled with hope now.

Soon, it was morning. The dolls heard a man’s voice, trying to be jolly. ‘Well, Cherie, aren’t you going to open your lovely presents? Start with those two boxes.’

‘Yes, Daddy.’  A thin, flat, voice. Gloria and Esmeralda were afraid again. This child would not love them, no matter what Santa Claus said. All was lost.

Next thing, the wrapping-paper was roughly ripped, the lids of the boxes pulled off, so quickly that the dolls flipped helplessly out, onto their faces.

Mr Darling cried, ‘Really, Cherie, be careful! Look how beautiful they are! ‘

‘I don’t like dolls,’ shouted Cherie. ‘They stare and stare and they’re stupid! Stupid!’

‘Oh, nothing’s good enough for you, I’m tired of it, tired, do you hear!’ yelled her father. And he went out, slamming the door.

Cherie glared at the dolls. She picked them up, roughly. Gloria and Esmeralda thought their last hour had come. They would be torn limb from limb, their bodies shredded, their heads wrenched off. But as they helplessly looked up they suddenly saw in the child’s eyes, under the anger,  a sadness that  made their red satin hearts clench and their sharp minds ache. In that instant, something warm and golden and loving flowed from the dolls to the child, seeping into Cherie’s unhappy, lonely eyes.

She stared at them. Her lip trembled. She said, faintly, ‘I don’t like dolls..’ Shyly, she touched Esmeralda’s hair, then Gloria’s. She stroked their clothes. She held a doll in the crook of each arm. She whispered, ‘Most dolls are stupid,’ but then added, ‘not you,’ softly.

That is how Mr Darling found them when he came back, ashamed of shouting at his daughter on Christmas Day, wishing that he’d chosen her present himself, telling himself that he must try and understand, even if she made it hard.

But she smiled at him and said, ‘Daddy, do you know what their names are? Gloria and Esmeralda. I think they must be good friends, don’t you? Oh, Daddy, I love them already.’

And as Mr Darling sat happily with his daughter, Gloria and Esmeralda lay happily in her arms. Can two queens really be good friends? Why not? Anything was possible, on this beautiful Christmas morning.

‘Going over to the other side’ available on open access now

For anyone interested, my book chapter, ‘Going over to the other side-the new breed of author publishers’ which was published in the book ‘Publishing Means Business’ (Monash University Publishing, 2017) is now available through Monash on open access.

The rest of the book is also available, see here. You might also be interested to know that Chapter Two, by Dr Jan Zwar, explores some of the research findings from my 2014 book, The Adaptable Author.