Lovely, isn’t it? This sampler, inherited from my husband’s side of the family, is by far the oldest piece we have in our house. We don’t know much about the family members mentioned, only that they were part of the Dodding family who were prosperous merchants living in the Lake District, in the north-west of England. The family made a fortune and built a fancy house then a risky investment in a coal mine in Birmingham, which turned out to have no mineable coal, led them to lose most of their money. The fancy house had to be sold, but that’s about all I know of their story. One thing I do know is that ‘our’ Elizabeth wasn’t related to the much more famous Elizabeth Gaskell, English novelist, biographer and short story writer, although that would have been so cool – a famous writer in the family!
But that’s not the reason I’m sharing this particular family heirloom with you. It’s because it is a ‘little inspiration’.
I was pondering on what to post today, wandering about the house (as I do), when I found myself contemplating the sampler. As I stood before the sampler my thoughts drifted to a recent post by Jean Lee on ‘How do you name your characters.’ My response to this question, about which she expands so interestingly, was this: ‘Naming characters is like naming cats… I have to wait for them to whisper them to me.’
Then I remembered that it was while I was gazing at the sampler that William, from Following the Green Rabbit, whispered his name to me. The date is about right for the ‘olden times’ part of the story, and it’s a nice ‘solid’ name for his character. I’d already named his wife, Ellen, for my maternal grandmother. The name just seemed right, and it was she who inspired me to improve my cookery skills. Grandma Atkins gave me her recipe for Lancashire Hotpot which in turn became my first published piece anywhere!
And the ‘little inspiration’ for Ellen showing Bethany how to card wool in the excerpt below? Well, that came from my former life in the 17th century.
So now, what better time to introduce you to William, as my young heroine Bethany first finds herself back in the ‘olden times’.
Excerpt from Following the Green Rabbit
“There was this man. He was dressed oddly, in sort of sacking stuff, but he had a nice, friendly face and I wasn’t afraid. He reminded me of Papa in a way, you know how his eyes pucker up at the edges when he smiles?” Bethany fell silent.
Bryony looked out across the garden; she blinked quickly then turned back to her sister. “A man, you say, in the woods? What did you do?” She glanced towards the kitchen door and over to Tom’s work shed, but there was no sign of either of their benevolent and hugely protective guardians.
“Well, he held out his hand to me, and I took it. He said something, but I didn’t quite understand him. He had a funny way of talking.”
Bryony’s eyes widened. “You took his hand? Beth…”
“I know I shouldn’t’ve done, but…” Bethany closed her eyes and shook her hands in front of her, like she did when she knew she’d done something wrong.
Bryony stretched out and grabbed her hands. “It’s all right; gently now. Take a deep breath and tell me.”
Bethany breathed in and out a few times.
“That’s better. Pray continue,” said Bryony, imitating the voice of the frightful Miss C.
Bethany looked up. “He told me his name was William and he lived with his wife nearby. We walked a little way and we came to his house. It was built out of stones and had a sort of straw roof, like one of the ones from the olden days in our big history book, except it seemed quite new. There was another little building too, like Tom’s workshop, and there were chickens running about outside.”
“His wife was called Ellen and she was sitting on a little bench outside the house. She had a big mound of white fluffy stuff next to her. She said it was from one of their sheep and she showed me how she was straightening it out with two big brushes.” Bethany frowned, putting her head on one side. “What did she call it?” She looked up at the sky. “Carding, that’s it. It was called carding. She showed me how to do it. Then we went into the house and she gave me some milk and biscuits.”
“Then Ellen said it was getting late. She and William looked at each other, you know, that funny kind of look which adults give each other, when we’re not supposed to understand something.” Bethany rolled her eyes. “Then William said that he’d walk me back to the village, so I explained that we didn’t live in the village. And they gave each other that look again. So I told them where we lived, but they didn’t know our house. They said there was no big house over the other side of the wood; just more trees.”
Bryony frowned. ‘How could they not know Bluebell Wood House?”
Bethany shrugged. “Perhaps I didn’t explain it very well. You know I get muddled up with directions. Anyway, they asked me to stay where I was and they went outside for a little while. When they came back they looked happy again. William said he’d take me back to the part of the woods where he first saw me and I’d be sure to find my way home. So that’s what we did.”
“I hope you thanked Ellen.”
“Yes,” Bethany rolled her eyes again. “You sound just like Hodge.”
“Who’s taking my name in vain?”
The two girls looked round. Hodge was carrying a basket of washing to hang out on the line.
“Oh, nothing. We were just saying we should thank you for our lunch,” said Bryony quickly.
“Well, you’re very welcome and you can show me your gratitude by clearing the table there.” She balanced the washing basket on her hip and picked the little carved robin up from the table. “That’s a pretty little thing, so it is. Where did you get it?”
‘I found it in the w… orchard,” stammered Bethany.
‘Hmm,” Hodge pursed her lips and put it down. She shifted the heavy basket in front of her. “Just mind you carry those lunch things in carefully,” she said turning away and continuing down the garden.
They started to clear the table. When Hodge was out of earshot Bethany picked up the robin and turned to her sister. “When William took me back to the woods he gave this to me and said it was a present to remember him and Ellen by. I took it from him and looked at it, but then when I looked up he’d gone. I didn’t even get the chance to thank him.” She stroked the little carving. “The funny thing is that when he gave it to me it looked like new. The colours were all bright and shiny. Now it looks as if it’s really old.”
FOLLOWING THE GREEN RABBIT
~ a fantastical adventure
available in paperback and ebook