Corinna Downes spent much of her life as a headmaster's secretary and full time mother, bringing up her two daughters. Then she met the director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, and her world was never the same again.
On 23rd March, 1985, at around 1.00 am, my daughter, Shoshannah, woke me up because she wanted to go on a journey. She had warned me about this adventure many times over the previous days, but had been unable to confirm the exact date or time. Therefore, although I had been expecting her to embark upon this once in a lifetime trip imminently, it still came as a bit of a surprise when she actually announced her impending arrival and that her father and I should expect her sometime very soon.
After many stops along the way, at
7.26 pm she – as my satnav would put it - reached her destination; all 6lb 15oz
of her. (She also came with an extra
surprise; two bottom front teeth, but that is a different story involving very
short trips in an ambulance around the hospital car park from one building to
another, when she had to have one tooth extracted when only a few days old.)
Up until 1985 I think there was
only one thing I had ever done that I could even contemplate counting as a
major event, and that was passing my driving test! And that had taken two goes and didn’t happen
until I was 21. Upon reflection, perhaps two attempts are why I thought it was such a memorable occasion.
It wasn’t until around eight
years later that my life changed and I relegated that ‘major event’ to where it
really belonged; amongst the pile of ‘just one of those things that one does
and takes for granted events’. It was some time around December 1984 that the
realisation really dawned on me that
1985 was going to be a life-changing year. I had no idea where it was going to
take me; it was scary, exciting, unknown, unfathomable, terrifying, awesome all
rolled into one great ball wrapped with joy.
But I often wondered if I would be able to cut the proverbial
Amongst others, there were these recurring
questions in my mind:
Would I be any good as a mother? (I think I did okay, although if I am honest
I don’t think I would have made ‘A*’ but ‘A’ I would accept.)
Would I be able to keep them safe
in this sometimes horrid world? (Yes)
Would I be able to teach them right
from wrong? (Yes – terrible 2s were a bit touch and go though)
Would I be too over-protective? (Um,
yes I probably have, and shall continue so to do)
Would I cope with the TEENAGE
years? (Phew, just about)
Would I be able to teach them the proper manners and how to behave in public? (I didn't read Jane Austen for nothing. And Shosh loudly singing the 'Postman Pat' song at the back of the church whilst we attended her two cousins' joint christening was perfectly acceptable. Even the vicar complemented her on that)
Would they turn out
well-adjusted, kind, caring, and a credit to the human race? (I reckon I did a
And if someone waved a magic wand
and I could do it all again, would I? (Too damn tooting right I would)
Shoshannah, my darling first-born, you have reached one of
those birthday milestones today. If
someone were to ask me now, ‘What are the things you are most proud of
achieving in your life?’ the answer would be that there are only two. And you are one of them.
In the bedroom of a cottage, on
the edge of a village in the heart of the English countryside, an alarm clock
was 'beep-beep-beeping'. The sound got
louder the longer it went on, until – suddenly – it stopped. From beneath the warmth of the quilt an arm
had surfaced, its hand fumbling around on the bedside cupboard in search of the
alarm clock that had once again rudely interrupted his slumber. The forefinger and middle finger of the searching
hand finally found the snooze button, and silence fell upon the room
In fact, the silence was
deafening. And he knew instantly that there had been snowfall during the
night. There was a gleam to the room
through the open curtains, and it was eerily quiet outside. Even the distant hum from the motorway that he
was so used to hearing in the background could not be heard. ‘Ah well,’ he thought. ‘Britain has come to a standstill
again because of the weather.’ And then
he smiled as the next thought beamed through. ‘Hey, I may get a day off work if
there are no buses running.’
Peeking his head out from under
the covers, he looked across at his bedside cupboard. The time was 5.38 am. He
had nearly an hour. He always set the
alarm for an hour before he had to get up. He liked the fact that he could wake
up gently, and snuggle in the quilts, snooze and then repeat this exercise a
couple of times, before it was time to ease out first one leg, and then the
other, before facing the world for another day.
Today, though, he couldn’t resist
the temptation to take a look outside to see exactly how much snow had laid
overnight. He may be in his mid-fifties,
but the thrill of snow still affected him and filled him with boyish
He flung out his legs and once in
a sitting position he could see that it was, in fact, still snowing. Great flakes
of the stuff were silently drifting down from the pregnant clouds above. Thankful for the wonders of central heating,
he made his way to the window and lent on his elbows as he perused the world
outside. Yep. It was deep out there. The lane outside was completely covered in,
as yet, untouched, clean, white virgin snow.
The dry stone wall opposite was almost two thirds buried, and it being
at nearly a metre tall, it had definitely been what one could describe as a substantial
Now he had to make a quick
decision. Would he attempt the half-mile
walk to the B-road to get the bus? If
so, he would clearly have to leave earlier than normal to wade his way through. There was that prick of conscience at the back
of his mind that he should attempt it; after all the main road may have been
gritted and be suitable for public transport.
But then again, he knew from past experience that the local council was
not known for its pre-emptive measures at this time of year.
He glanced at his front
gate. No way was he going to be able to
open that. Nope, there was nothing for
it – he was snowed in. He smiled
again. He had enough milk, bread and
other basics to keep him going for the day.
He would make the phone call later at around 8.30 to let them know he
wouldn’t be showing up for work today; if anyone had actually made it in to
pick up the phone that is. But he would
try – he could leave a message if needs be, and then at least he would be
covered. He always made sure that he was
covered for all eventualities.
So, with that decision made, he
considered whether to go back to bed or whether to make the most of his early
morning start and get some chores done inside the cottage. Although he had lived in the same county, he
hadn’t been living in the cottage long, having only moved in four months
previously. Work commitments had
restricted his DIY attempts, as well as work on his hobby, and there was a lot
to be done to make the place more habitable or, rather, more habitable to his
taste. The décor was good on the whole,
but there were lots of little jobs to be sorted. And, of course, there was
always the spare third bedroom to be organised.
His remaining unpacked boxes and an old leather chest were stored in
that room and he really needed to go through them and disseminate the contents
before the boxes became too much part of the scenery. Once he had bought a
ladder and could gain access to the loft, some of them would need to go up
there. In fact, at least one of them would,
without him even opening it. The leather chest labelled ‘Jane’.
He had lived with Jane for eleven
years before she has disappeared. The
police had been informed obviously, but after seven years of her not being
found, she had officially been declared dead in absentia. The police, of course, had emphasised to him that this
was just a matter of formality and that she could still be alive, maybe just
having taken on a new identity. This happened apparently, and quite often to
ladies of a certain age who had suddenly decided that the life they were living
was not what they had wished for. But, deep down he knew that his wife was no
longer alive. Their relationship had
been one of those where couples are so emotionally and spiritually involved that
they could feel such things. They had
become apt at knowing what each other was thinking, and often said the same
things out loud at exactly the same time.
They basically shared the same special relationship as do twins.
The chest contained some of her
possessions that he had wanted to keep.
There were a couple of paintings that she had completed that had been
his favourites, together with a box of her jewellery, a couple of articles of
clothing that he loved seeing her wear and some other odd knick-knacks to
remember her by.
So, deciding on the latter
choice, he went into the bathroom and had a pee. Then, as he cleaned his teeth
he stared at himself in the mirror over the basin. The long, pointy-nosed, lean face looked back
him. He didn’t look too bad for his age,
but the encroaching grey that speckled the black hair around the side of his
head always acted as a reminder that his time on this earth was in the downward
spiral rather than the ascending. He
flossed, returned his toothbrush to its holder, and washed his face before one
more glance at his reflection. He
grinned at himself, and said, ‘Okay, let’s make the most of it, mate,’ and
returned to the bedroom to get dressed.
Downstairs in the kitchen, he
filled up the kettle, plugged it in and flicked the switch. Whilst it boiled he looked out of the kitchen
window into his back garden. The bird
table looked as if it was covered in a giant marshmallow, and the spindly
winter boughs of the trees were bent over with the weight of snow clinging to
them. He shrugged slightly. By the look
of it, there would be no chance of him being able to finish the job he had
started a few weeks ago down at the bottom of the garden either. Like the boxes in the bedroom, it may just
have to wait until he got around to it.
It was of no consequence, and like with them, there was no rush,
although he had to admit that he would feel better if he could get it
completed. Maybe he would just brush
away the snow so that he could carry on.
He could always build a snowman afterwards with all the brushed aside
snow, just as a childish treat.
Yes, that is what he would
After breakfast, he grabbed his
overalls, wellies, gloves, bobble hat and scarf from the under stair cupboard
and unlocked the back door. Like most
back doors, opening inwards made it easy to open in even the most extreme
weather conditions. The shed, opening
outwards, was a little more difficult, and he had to kick away as much snow as
possible before removing the rest with his hands so that he could gain entrance
to his gardening tools. First the yard
broom, then the shovel and the gardening fork, and finally the pick-axe.
He set to work; he had made great
headway the time before a few weeks ago, but there were still a few more feet
to go. Soon he had a pyramid of snow
next to the hole. The ground was hard,
and he worked at it with the pick axe to break up the frozen clods of earth as
best he could. Not only was the ground hard work, this kind of manual work was
It was lucky he had no immediate
neighbours who could nose out of their bedroom windows upstairs. He was merely digging a hole for a pond, but
he knew that it would more than likely look very odd to watch someone do that
at this time of year. But he was a man of the moment. If he wanted to dig a pond at this time of
year, then why shouldn’t he? It was his garden, his time, and nothing at all to
do with the neighbours, even if he did have any. He wanted to get it in for spring, so that he
could plant as many bulbs and shrubs around it as possible in order for it to
be settled and to look its best in the summer months.
By noon he had not got very much
further, but at least the snow had stopped.
Only a few more hours and it would be dark. But he had got so far he couldn’t possibly just
stop now. He was that kind of
person. Once something was set in his
mind that was it. Jane had known that
and had accepted it. And everyone else would have to as well.
She had had to accept many things
in her relationship with him. She had
never really ‘got’ his hobby, but she had given up questioning it, and the
smell of the chemicals that oozed from beneath the door of the spare bedroom in
their old house. No matter how hard she
tried, she just could not rid the thought that her partner being an undertaker
by day, and a taxidermist in what spare time he had was weird. But then again, he could never see the
attraction of her hobby – flower arranging – as being the most interesting and
absorbing thing to do in one’s spare time.
It was now 5.15 pm, and it was
dark, and what had become something to complete as an idea to fill in the day
had become an obsession that had to be finished before he went to bed. Then that would be it. One of his outstanding
jobs completed. The matter would be
closed. Done and dusted.
There was just one more thing to
do before he could set in the fibreglass pond, which he had bought in the end
of season sale at the garden centre. He made his way to the shed, and switched
on the light inside. There in the corner
sat the large leather chest. This had been Jane’s also, and it was only fitting
in his mind that this is where she should hide after her ‘disappearance’. He dragged it out of the shed and down
towards the hole. The snow made it tough
going, so he had to brush some of it out of the way with the broom before he
could go any further.
He was somewhat relieved that the
chest’s dimensions fitted the hole perfectly and that the fibreglass pond shell
slipped in on top as he had hoped.
As he had breakfast the next
morning he gazed out at the snowman that he had built in the empty pond shell
and smiled. ‘Dearest Jane,’ he thought
to himself. ‘Such a clever hiding place. You were always good at playing
He went upstairs to get dressed
into his work gear, and before going back downstairs to leave for his walk to
the bus, he had a peek around the door into the second bedroom. His current work was nearly finished, but he
needed to check his supplies to see if he needed to pinch anything important
“Good morning, Gemma,” he said
cheerily to the chubby receptionist.
“Good morning, Matty,” she
replied, “How are you today? I am glad
you managed to get in – it was terrible yesterday wasn’t it? I wish I could get snowed in. Did you manage to do anything nice at home as
you couldn’t get here?”
“Indeed it was,” he replied, “And
yes I did, thank you. I got a job done
that had been lying around for ages.” As he replied, he looked directly at her
and contemplated how challenging it would be to embalm such a rotund figure.
Poppy is 15 years old today, or 76 in human years. Happy Birthday to her and to her late and much missed brother, Spider. No doubt she will spend her day with a casual stroll around the garden, and an undefinable amount of time staring out of the window or sleeping in her box, and perhaps will enjoy something nice for tea. "But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family's in bed and asleep,
She tucks up her skirts to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice--
Their behaviour's not good and their manners not nice;