U is for… Unauthorized

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

A very quick forward before this story: this one is entirely fictional, and is based on an old English folktale which I found in Neil Philip’s wonderful The Penguin Book of English Folktales. It’s sadly out of print, but if you come across it in a second hand bookshop I’d highly recommend it. Some of the tales are amusing, some sad, and some very dark and gothic (including a great story that Dickens’ Nanny told him growing up, and one that terrified him as a child).


“Now remember, don’t play over on the Main Road,” said my mother. “You stay on our street.”

I sighed. “Yes mum, I know.”

“I mean it now. If you go on the Main Road, Mr Miacca will come get you.”

I rolled my eyes — I’d heard the warning hundreds of time.

“Yeah alright, I’ll stay on our street.”

I headed out into the early summer sunshine. There was plenty to get on with on our street, but of course, none of it was as interesting as the forbidden Main Road. I looked over at it. There was a sweet shop across the road and a newsagent next to it. I wanted to go have a look.

Mum was in the kitchen so she couldn’t see me out of the window. Maybe if I was quick, she wouldn’t know.

I ran.

When I stepped onto the Main Road, I was surprised to find that the cars on the road and the people on the pavement vanished. I looked around to find the shops were empty. I walked on, puzzled. It was darker somehow on the Main Road, the colours looked different, and there was a faint tinkling in the air, as though tiny bells were ringing in the distance. It made me want to run back home, but I brazened it out.

I’ll just go as far as the lamppost and then I’ll turn back.

I walked quickly.

Behind me, the sound of bells intensified. I turned to find Santa’s carriage flying down towards me — except that it was drawn by dogs and instead of being a sled, it had wheels. At its helm was a man wearing a waistcoat and trousers, with the head and tail of a fox.

Mr Miacca.

“Well, well, little girl,” he said. “Welcome to Unauthorised. Into the bag you go!”

I tried to run but the dogs were faster than me. Mr Miacca grabbed me by the collar and bundled me into the bag. The carriage clattered away and then fell silent: we were flying.

“Where are you taking me?” I shouted from inside my bag.

“To Mrs Miacca.”

A few minutes later I felt the carriage land and Mr Miacca picked me up with the bag. A door slammed. I was dropped out of the bag, rolling out onto a large wooden table. I shook my head to clear the dizziness. We were in a sun filled kitchen with window boxes full of plants I didn’t recognise, and there was a blue mixing bowl in the sink.

“Petunia dear! I’ve brought dinner.”

“Good, good.” Mrs Miacca entered the kitchen. She was a heavy, fleshy woman wearing a flowery pinafore, and she had the same head and tail of a fox as Mr Miacca.

“What’s this?” she asked. “I specifically told you to get a boy.”

“That’s a boy,” said Mr Miacca.

“Er, excuse me,” I pipped up. “I am not a boy, I’m a girl.”

Mr Miacca threw me an annoyed look.

“Now don’t you try and pull one over on me, Algernon.” Mrs Miacca waggled a finger at him. “You know girls don’t agree with you.”

“Well I just thought –”

“I know what you just thought. You thought you could pass her off as a boy because she’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt, not a dress.”

“But girls taste better.”

“You know what the doctor said: a boy only diet for the next month. More nutrients in boys — think of your anemia.”

“Why are there more nutrients in boys?” I asked.

“Boys tend to be more naughty. You –” Mrs Miacca gave me a good sniff — “Have a bit of naughtiness clinging to you, but nearly enough for me to make a full meal out of it.”

“You eat naughtiness?”

“Obviously,” she replied. “What else would we eat?”

I had no answer.

“But see dear, that why I grabbed her,” said Mr Miacca. “Since we need to lose weight and all –”

“Who needs to lose weight?” Mrs Miacca’s tone had both Mr Miacca and I carefully looking in every direction but hers. “Hmm? Who needs to lose weight?”

“M-me dear,” he replied.

“Yes, well, you have put on a few pounds recently.”

Mr Miacca and I studiously avoided making eye contact with her again.

“Now,” she continued, “did you at least get me the condiments I asked for?”

Mr Miacca’s head retreated between his shoulder as if he was trying to imitate a turtle. He gave me a panicked look.

Don’t drag me into this, buddy. 

“Well?” asked Mrs Miacca. “Did you get the badger tears? The dreams of an old man? The mustard?”

“Ummmm –”

“I even wrote you out a shopping list.”

“I think I lost it on the way — must have flown out of my pocket. Anyway I didn’t have time: she just appeared in front of me, so I grabbed her and came home. We could –”

“No, we are not having that disgusting Brown Sauce you brought back last time. Even if there are badger tears in it. Why humans would eat it voluntarily is beyond me. Sometimes, Algernon, I wonder if you were born without taste buds.”

“Yes dear.”

“Now you will take the girl back to where you found her, and go find us a boy with sufficient naughtiness. I’m hungry. And don’t forget the condiments this time — the mustard should be whole grain by the way.”

“Yes dear.”

“And hurry about it or we’ll be late for bridge with the Toothfairy and La P’tite Souris.”

“Yes dear.”

Mrs Miacca wrote a new shopping list, thrust it at her husband, and swept out of the kitchen. With a sigh, Mr Miacca gestured for me to follow him and we headed to the carriage.

“Why is your carriage just like Santa’s?” I asked.

“He borrows our winter carriage to get around at Christmas time. He’s not very organised, old Santa. Always coming to us in a bind at the last minute, to find out which kids have been naughty.”

“How do you know?”

“All the Unauthorised places of the world belong to Mrs Miacca and I. We know as soon as child steps into one of them.”

“Are you going to tell Santa about me?”

“Absolutely. Especially considering the hassle you’ve cost me.”

“So what, that means I won’t get any presents?”

“I don’t know, it depends on him. Now get on.”

I frowned, a little worried this Christmas would be bare. Mr Miacca picked me up and slung me on the front seat, climbing on after me. The dogs wagged their tails and barked excitedly.

“Giddy-up!” called Mr Miacca, twitching the reins. The dogs ran ahead, pulling us behind, and then we lifted off. It was like being in a plane, only better. We went so fast, my eyes were streaming from the wind, and the land beneath us was a blur.

In a few minutes we were over London, like a cluster of dollhouses beneath us through which ran a blue shoelace — the Thames. Mr Miacca brought us down and we landed on the Main Road, just outside my street.

“Go on then,” he said. “Off you trot.”

I climbed down. “Bye Mr Miacca!”

“Feel free to come back in Unauthorised again next month, once my boy only diet is over,” he said with a grin.

I thought about it. “Ok I will, but only if you don’t tell Santa about me — this time and next time.”

“Ok, you have yourself a deal.” He leaned down and we shook hands.

When I reached my street, I looked back over my shoulder. Main Road looked normal once more, with cars running through it, and people on the pavement. Of Mr Miacca and his carriage, there was no trace.

K is for… Kindling

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

In our house in London, there were two rooms right at the top of the house, almost under the eaves. One was a normal room, one was not.

The not normal room had yellow walls – but that wasn’t what made it special. What made its special was the huge panel that took up almost a whole wall. If you pushed it until it clicked, it swung down until it was parallel to the floor at knee height, and on it was the most beautiful and intricate model train track you have ever seen.

Tiny green pine trees, train tracks that curved, went up and down hills, rocks, stations, clusters of houses that formed villages…Even tiny switches to move the trains from one set of tracks to the other. A compartment had been built into the wall to accommodate it all when the panel was closed.

After we discovered the model train, my brothers and I spent a while playing with it. We moved the trains along the tracks, making all the right noises, we moved wagons from one miniature engine to another, and we even engineered a train crash (sound effects provided by my youngest brother). When it was time for lunch, my parents picked up the edge of the panel and swung the model train track back into its secret compartment, so that the room was once more empty. There was no other furniture.

I came back later, on my own, creeping up the stairs so no one would hear me. I wanted to look at the train alone. I had to stand on tiptoe to reach high enough to open the panel, but it was heavier than I’d expected, and I fumbled my grip so that it fell open, smacking into position.

“Careful with that!” said a voice like a crinkly paper bag.

I spun around to find an old man standing behind me. He was hunched, his head poking out from between his shoulders like a turtle’s head out of its shell. He wore a creased black suit.

“You have to be careful,” he said again in his crackling voice. “That took me ten years to build. It’s delicate. And tell that brother of yours to be more careful with my engines when he does a train crash.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t think we damaged anything, though.”

“Hmm…” He bent over the model and examined it so closely his nose almost touched one of the pine trees. He let out a low rattle. “Raaahh – see there, you’ve chipped the pain a little bit. See, come here. Look.”

I looked where he pointed and as I leaned towards him, I realised that he didn’t smell of moth balls or of that odd, antiseptic smell old people sometimes have. He didn’t smell of anything.

The tree he was pointing at had a little white chip on one side where the paint had come off.

“Maybe it’s like a little bit of snow,” I said. “Maybe winter is coming, and the trains are bringing food to the villages before the snow makes it impossible to travel.”

“Hmm. Alright, I guess that will work. I’ll let you off this once, but you have to look after my model, you hear me? It’s precious. It needs care, gentle care. My sons didn’t know how to care for it. Young people these days. I tried and I tried to show them but they never listened. Worse, they wanted to tear it down.  Can you believe it? Tear it down! Hack it up like it was nothing more than kindling!” The old man’s voice caught in his throat and he fell silent. He patted one of the engines as if it was a cat. “Kindling,” he repeated to himself.

“Who are your sons?” I asked with a frown. Were there more people in the house we didn’t know about?

“Oh they’ve left now. They sold the place a while ago. That’s the one benefit of being dead, you know. It’s much easier to be persuasive.”

I nodded, not entirely sure what he was referring to, and entirely sure I didn’t want to find out.

“You seem like a nice family,” he added. “You seem like a family that might look after things.”

“Celine! A table!” called my mother from downstairs. (This is, by the way, the french for dinner time, although it also works for lunch.)

“I have to go,” I told the man. “It’s dinner time.”

I went to push the panel back into its compartment, when he grabbed my wrist. His touch was cold, like autumn mist, and all I felt was a slight pressure where his hand was.

“Don’t let them turn my masterpiece into kindling,” he said urgently.


“Your parents. Don’t let them tear it down.”

“I don’t know if I can tell them what to do. I’m only a kid.”

“Of course you can. Play with the train. If you play with it, they’ll leave it alone. But you have to be gentle with it.” He let go of my wrist and ran his hand over a cluster of house. I wondered if he could even feel anything beneath his fingers. “Tell your brothers to be careful with it too,” he added.

“Celine!!” called my mother.

“I really have to go,” I said, “or I’ll get in trouble. I’ll put the train away now, but we’ll come back and play with it later. Or maybe tomorrow.”

I picked up the edge of the panel, and the man stepped back, his eyes following the model as I pushed it back into its compartment. Once I had finished, I turned around to tell him again that I’d be back later, but he was gone.

“Hello?” The room was empty. I stepped out into the corridor. “Hello? Mister?”

My mother called for me to come down again and I hurried downstairs. As I ran down the steps I wondered if I should tell my parents that we had a ghost in the house.


This story is partly true: we did move into a house that had a large model train built into a wall. It was awesome. I never came across the ghost who had made it though, if there even was one.

I is for… Ils parlent Francais comme nous

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

First, a bit of context: for those of you who don’t know, my family are French (as, obviously, am I), but we lived in England. The extended family however was and still is in France. So my siblings and I grew up grew up speaking French at home but English to anyone who wasn’t our family. When this story takes place, my little sister was still young enough never to have been out and about in France (or at least if she had been, she didn’t remember / couldn’t speak.)

Being the eldest, every summer when we went to stay with our grandparents, I organised various means for us to make a few francs. This was nothing groundbreaking: we’d make magazines by drawing and writing on two sheets of A4 that we bound together, or we’d make necklaces out of twine and dead, sun bleached snail shells found in the garden. (It is, by the way, a testament to grandparental love that my grandmother was happy to pay for dead snail shells from her own garden year after year). So on the day of our tale, my sister was recently flush with a couple of francs, and she was eager to go play the big spender at the village sweet shop.

Being the kindly big sister that I am, I took her along. The walk over was mainly over little used roads, so we didn’t come across anyone else. In fact, it wasn’t until we had gone into the shop, and selected our respective sweets, and lined up to queue for the till, that we heard other people speaking French.

My sister’s mouth opened in an ‘o’ of shock. She grabbed my sleeve and exclaimed very loudly (and in perfect French) “Celine! Ils parlent Français comme nous!!” (Celine, they speak French like us) to the surprise and confusion of everyone else in the shop.

It turned out that until that point, she had believed French to be a special language only spoken by members of our family, as if we were some secret society, while the rest of the world spoke English. It took the whole walk home (and then some) to explain that, sadly, that was not the case.

H is for… Heartless

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

In the South of France there are a lot of hills. To make the land constructible and farmable, these hills are stepped, and the soil and vegetation is kept in place by walls of dry white stones. So if you imagine an enormous step, the top is grass, the side is white stone. That’s what the South of France looks like, or at least that’s what it was like near my grandparents’ place.

Of course my cousin and I climbed the walls, and the taller the better. One of the best and tallest walls was at the edge of the garden, next to my grandparents’ neighbours who were called Dalmasso — Mr et Mme Dalmasso. To this day I don’t know their first names.

They had a little house, vegetables in hothouses, rabbits in hutches and chickens scratching about.

Sometimes Mme Dalmasso would call us over and give us a few things to bring back to our grandparents (green beans, tomatoes, onions – although I mainly remember green beans). My grandparents’ garden was surrounded by a a meter tall fence, but it was at the edge of a step so that beneath the fence was a stone wall. To take the vegetables we had to lean as far as we could over the fence, and Mme Dalmasso would reach up and give us the green beans wrapped in newspaper.

Mme Dalmasso was, I’m sure, perfectly nice. But she was an older woman that we didn’t know (our grandparents did though), and she had long grey hair and a white and red gingham apron, so we were a bit weary of her. We said our please and thank yous, and took what she gave us and scampered away, waiting until she was out of sight to return to our climbing wall.

One year there was a fire. I didn’t know a thing about it until we arrived the following summer, my cousin and I running to the tallest wall, only to find that beyond the fence, instead of the tidy little house, stood a charred ruin. The hutches were open and empty, the glass of the hothouses was smashed, the chickens had disappeared. Of Mr et Mme Dalmasso there was no sign (I later found out as an adult that they had moved elsewhere after the fire. They had escaped unscathed.)

We were both a bit shocked at first, but after a while, when it became clear that the house and garden were empty and no adults were around, we grew a bit bolder and hatched a plan to go explore the ruined house. The plan wasn’t much of a plan: we decided to climb over the fence, down the dry stone wall, to the Dalmasso house. And so we did.

I remember the thrill as we climbed the fence. Back then nothing was more exciting than exploring somewhere new, and a charred ruin of a house was very worthy of exploration. The roof had completely caved, only a few tiles remaining in places. Blackened beams stuck out towards the sky. The floor was littered with bricks and tiles and rubble, but beneath all that were untold treasures: here and there bits of smashed plates, a scorched scrap of cushion, a few pages of a book. It never occurred to us that these were the remnants of two people’s lives. We never gave thought to the fact that the Dalmassos had no doubt lost everything in a puff of black smoke, like a bad magic trick.

We rooted around in the ruin, delighted, calling each other to come look at whatever we had found. We squatted and lifted bits of charred furniture to find a discarded fork, pointing in awe at the remains of a drawer. We peered into the broken hothouses and poked about the rabbit hutches. They still smelt of straw and of rabbit. We stuck our heads into each one, making funny noises and giggling.

We didn’t take anything, we didn’t break anything. We looked, we explored. The exploration was a joy in and of itself, and what a joy it was.

When we were done, we climbed back up to my grandparents’ garden, and that was that.

All told, we were really pleased with our afternoon and with ourselves for being so adventurous. If someone had honestly asked us at the time, I think we would have said that yes, we were very glad the house had burned down because it was very interesting now. Mme Dalmasso and her grey hair and her gingham apron was all but forgotten — a year is such a long time at that young age, and the thrill of exploration can do funny things to a child’s memory.

Now that I’m fully grown, I feel a little guilty about how heartless we were back then…


G is for… Goblins

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

Every child had a monster under the bed. Mine was a goblin. Although to be precise, I didn’t just have one monster — I had three.

The first was the one under the bed.

Getting into bed was a real challenge. You see, I couldn’t simply walk up to the bed and climb in — oh no. Then the goblin would have snatched my ankle and dragged me under the bed, which would have turned out not to have been under-the-bed at all, but whatever dank, nightmare world goblins come from.

To get into bed I had to get as close to it as I could while remaining far away enough to be beyond the goblin’s sight and grasp (this goblin was very short sighted). Then I jumped into bed — BUT landed as softly as I possibly could because if I did a big thump, the goblin would feel it and would know that I was in bed. This meant that most nights I leapt into bed much like a gazelle might (I suspect I was more graceful in my mind than in reality — but let’s face it, in the going to bed to avoid the goblin scenario, only imagination counts.)

Then once on the bed, I had to fax myself between the sheets, disturbing them as little as possible, and keeping myself as flat as possible. This was for goblin number two who lived in the tree outside my window. If I curled into a ball or made any kind of lump in the bed, he would see and open the window to come get me. So I would fax myself between the sheets and laid very straight, and very still so that the bed would seem empty (I know what you’re thinking, I would have been as visible as the nose in the middle of a face, but rationality really wasn’t playing a huge role at the time).

Once I’d evaded the first and second goblins, there was the third. He was the worst. He didn’t actually try to get me, oh no. Once he could see that I was in bed, he would crawl out from his hiding place and sidle over to the radiator by my door. My door was always open, letting in a puddle of yellow light from the corridor. He never went into the light though — goblins only exist in the shadows.

He would then squat next to the radiator. I knew he was there every time, even though I couldn’t see him if I looked at him. The third goblin could only be seen out of the corner of my eye, never by looking directly at him. If I did he would vanish into the shadows, only coming back out once I looked away.

The goblin would take out a tiny mallet, like the kind used with a xylophone, and he would bang against the radiator: clang-clang-clang-clang… It would get quicker and quicker, and then it would stop for a bit. Then it would pick up again, slow at first then quicker, quicker… There was no point to this, no aim, other than to scare me.

So every night I laid very light so that the goblin beneath my bed wouldn’t feel me, and very flat so that the goblin at the window wouldn’t see me, and I closed my eyes and made up stories so that the goblin at the radiator wouldn’t scare me.

F is for… Funfair

*My theme for this A to Z is Childhood stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are entirely fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger*

A funfair set up on the green near our house one day, all gawdy lights and madly spinning rides. Of course, we went. I had never been to a funfair before.

The air was sweet, smelling of popcorn and candied almonds and cut grass from the green — although nothing smelled as sweet as the candyfloss I held, the first I’d ever had. It was pink, bigger than my head, and I decided there and then that candyfloss was the finest invention of all mankind (except, of course, for Petit Déjeuner.)

I left my parents and wandered around, happily sinking as much of my face as I could into that pink cloud of sugar. Around me people fired rifles at tin cans, threw balls at plastic bottles, aimed horseshoes at cones. A man juggled flaming batons to the delight of the crowd assembled around him.

Behind the dodgems, I spotted a pretty wooden caravan painted with a pattern of flowers. As I got closer I could see that the paint was chipped and faded by the sun (I know what you’re thinking but it’s true. Even the UK sun can bleach colours if given years and years to work with.)

Above the bead curtain that served as a door was a sign that read ‘Special deal today only: £3.99’. In my pocket I had a crisp £5 note, so whatever it was, I could afford it. Intrigued, I climbed up the three steps to the caravan door, pushed the beads aside, and went in.

It was gloomy and looked how I imagined a mouse’s nest would look if that mouse had turned human. A mess of clothes, scarves, bits of fabric, and strings of coloured beads sprouted from open trunks, cascading onto the floor. More beads and fabric hung from the ceiling and the walls, sharing the space with drying herbs.

The caravan smelled of old cigarettes and patchouli.

“Ah, a customer!”

The woman who had spoken was sat in one of two chairs in the only space that wasn’t overrun with beads and fabric. Her hair was long and grey, her face was heavily lined, and a cigarette with a long trail of ash drooped from her lips. She took a drag and pinched the cigarette between thumb and index finger. The ash broke off and scattered over her ankle-length skirt.

“I saw you had a special deal,” I said, trying not to stare at the ring through her right nostril. “What’s it for?”

“Sit, sit,” she said, breathing out a cloud of smoke. She gestured to the chair opposite her. A vague pattern was visible beneath the patina of grime and ash, but whatever colour it had once been was lost to the years, and the chair was now the colour of dust.

I sat and she leaned towards me with a conspirational air.

“I can cure you,” she said.

“Of what?”

“Whatever you want. And not just a temporary cure, no. I do good business. I’d cure you for life. You want to be cured of disease, of ageing? I can do that.” She sat back in her chair, looking pleased with herself. “And for £3.99, it doesn’t get better than that. Today only mind you, so no thinking about it and coming back tomorrow.”

I considered her offer. £3.99 was a lot of money after all, and if I spent it on a cure, that would only leave me a pound and a penny to buy lemon sherbets and sour worms.

“Well I’m not old and I’m not sick,” I said aloud. I’d had a cold, but that was a couple of months ago and I’d already cured myself.

“Fine. I can cure you of failure. I can cure you of bad luck.”

I shook my head. I had candyfloss in my hand and £5 in my pocket: clearly I was both lucky and successful.

“You’re a tricky one,” said the woman. “What about jealousy or heartache? I can cure you of bad grades or stupidity. I can cure you of arguments and problems with your family. I can cure you of bad friends and bad relationships. I can cure your looks, I can make you a future model.”

“I’m not sure my looks need curing,” I said, a little hesitantly.

“Well, you’re no Cindy Crawford,” she replied, squinting at me through the smoke.

I wasn’t sure who Cindy Crawford was — someone prettier than me, I guessed — but I didn’t like the idea of a new face. “No, I think I’m good.”

The woman threw herself back against the chair. “Fine. Fine. You drive a hard bargain. Ok then, I’ll cure you of whatever you want, just tell me what it is.”

I considered this, but all I could think about was the candyfloss in my hand and the sunshine outside.

“Nothing, I guess,” I said.

“You must want something cured. Everybody wants something. And for such a good price too.” She considered me with calculating eyes, scratching the hollow of one cheek with a dirty fingernail. “Money,” she said. “I can cure you of lack of money. I can cure you of poverty and make you rich.”

“I’m not poor,” I replied, thinking of my crisp five pound note. I took a mouthful of candyfloss and it dissolved on my tongue.

“I can cure you of greed,” she said, brightening. “I can cure you of your sweet tooth.”


“Yes, I can cure you of your sweet tooth,” she said, eyes gleaming. “I can make it so you never crave candyfloss again. Or sugar or cake. No fillings for you, no problems with your teeth. No diabetes, no liver troubles, no cholesterol, no obesity. A lifetime of health troubles avoided just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “And all for the bargain price of £3.99. What do you say?”

I stood up.

“You are not taking my candyfloss away,” I said stiffly. “Thank you very much.”

“You should think of the future. I can make such a difference to your life.”

“I am thinking of the future, and it will be far, far better if there is candyfloss in it. Good day.” I turned to leave.

“Ok come back little girl, I’ll figure out what to cure you off.”

I ignored her and headed out the caravan, blinking as I stepped into the sunshine. The woman shouted something else after me, but I didn’t catch what it was. I didn’t care anyway, not if she wanted to take my candyfloss away and charge me a whole £3.99 for the privilege.

I slipped into the crowd, my anger quickly replaced with happiness as I sank my face once more into my pink sugar cloud.


Disclaimer: I should say that this story is entirely fictional. I’ve never wandered a funfair alone as a child, or met a woman like that, and happily I have no fillings, I’m not obese, and I have none of the health problems the women listed, although I do still love candyfloss.

D is for… the Dark

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

There are different kinds of dark. Some darks are friendly, some are even nice. Some are a little scary.

Then, there was the Dark from above the front door of the house I grew up in. We lived in an old Victorian house, and the door had glass panels in its top part. Above the door was a wide rectangle of glass that spanned the whole width of the entrance hall.

The Dark that lived behind the glass seemed innocent enough when I was downstairs with the entire family; but it was a devious Dark.

After everyone had gone to bed, I realised that I had left my book downstairs. Already in my pyjamas, I headed down, glancing nervously at the Dark. It let me go, sweet as you like, staying behind the glass partition. It didn’t even look at me. Relieved, I retrieved my book from the chair I’d left it on, and returned to the hallway.

The stairs were immediately opposite the front door, so that to go from the ground floor to the first floor I had to pass right in front of the door. Right in front of the Dark.

Seeing me return with my book, the Dark sprang to life. It turned and looked right at me, smiling a smile full of darkness. It waited for me to go up the stairs. You see, the Dark likes to strike when you have your back to it. When you can’t see it.

Of course the hallway lights were on, but that made no difference. Real Dark, devious Dark doesn’t care about light. It can strike even if all the lights of the house are on.

I hesitated, clutching my book closer to me, looking at the Dark behind the glass. It looked back. “Go on,” it dared me.

I gripped my book as hard as I could. I took a deep breath. Then, as suddenly as I could manage (to catch the Dark off guard), I sprinted for the stairs, grasped the end of the banister with one hand and swung myself onto the steps so that I stayed as far from the door as possible. The Dark lunged after me. I felt it on the back of my neck as I ran up the stairs, taking them two by two.

I tripped. My knee smacked painfully into the edge of a step, but even that didn’t stop me. I picked myself up and sprinted on, all the way up until I turned the corner and was in the safety of the first floor. I stopped then, out of breath, heart hammering.

The Dark coiled back to its place behind the glass, grumbling to itself. I was safe. For now.

“Tomorrow night I won’t forget my book,” I promised myself.

But the Dark is tricksy. Every night it found ways to make me come back down. Every night it chased me up the stairs, its fingers clutching at my pyjamas.

C if for… Chocolat Chaud

*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*

This post could also be called How to Prepare the Best Breakfast ever – but this is A to Z and I needed a C, so Chocolat Chaud it is. (This is, by the way, French for Hot Chocolate).

Growing up, my favourite meal was always le Petit Déjeuner (French for breakfast). It still is. And the best Petit Déjeuner of all my childhood was the first one of the summer holidays, having arrived at my grandparents’ place in the South of France. It isn’t just the croissant, the baguette. It’s the ritual of preparing the Petit Déjeuner that I love, a ritual that centers around the Chocolat Chaud.

Allow me to guide you through said ritual.

The perfect Petit Déjeuner begins on wakeup, on a sunny summer’s morning. You go down in your pyjamas to the terrace outside with its already-warm terracotta tiles, the sunlight dappled by the grapevine overhead. There, you say hello to the family already eating. You yawn, stretch your arms overhead, and then go to the kitchen to begin the Preparation.

(As you may have guess by now, as a child the preparation of my Petit Déjeuner was as solemn an occasion as any religious ceremony.)

You retrieve a bowl from the old fashioned crokery cupboard (bonnetière in French) that smells of old wood and wood varnish. Now Chocolat Chaud requires a bowl. Not a mug, not a cup, a bowl. No other vessel will do it justice. Preferably a simple bowl, even better if it’s a bit old with a chip on the side, perfect if on top of that it has some colour (the bowl I liked to use was blue green with a crack down the outside)

Two teaspoons of powdered chocolate go into the bowl and a third into your mouth, because it’s tasty, and because there is a unique joy in eating something powdery off a spoon — it goes all tacky in your mouth. Then milk, then into the microwave.

While the Chocolate Chaud is heating up, you eat a second teaspoon of powdered chocolate and put the pot back in its cupboard (you’ll of course have a third and final teaspoon later.) Then you begin preparing the baguette.

If you’re lucky (and I was pretty much always lucky for that first Petit Déjeuner of the summer holidays), there will be a croissant waiting for you out on the terrace, still in its crinkly paper bag, warm and smelling of butter. (My father would go and get them from the village down the road. The sign that you are grown up, by the way, is when you fetch your own croissant.)

A croissant is great, but not enough on its own. We need a baguette.


Half a baguette, freshly baked that morning. Slice it open. Then butter. Real butter, bien sur. No, I’m not referring to the margarine alternative, I mean salted butter. In Brittany, there is a saying: if it’s not salted butter, it’s not butter. And in Brittany you can get butter with actual salt crystals and it’s delicious beyond words. So. Salted butter.

Petit Déjeuner and childhood is not a time for weight or health concerns (in fact even as an adult Petit Déjeuner is not the time to worry about your cellulite), so it’s a generous slab of butter, followed by several generous dollops of jam that you spread with the back of the spoon (always with the back of a spoon for jam, never with a knife).

(The jam was homemade by Manou, my grandmother, and my favourites were either blackberry or apricot).

By now, the Chocolat Chaud should be ready, but wait. Don’t go yet. The bowl will be hot so take a tea towel. Now, here we come to a point of some dispute. To get the Chocolat Chaud to the right temperature you will have to heat the milk until a skin forms on the top. I’m not sure why it does that — it just does. It is an immutable part of hot milk physics.

The dispute is what to do with the skin.

Me, I think it’s gross. I scoop it off with a spoon and put it in the bin with a ‘yech!’. My father eats his milk skin with relish. Each to their own, but it’s something you have to take a stand on (and by the way, if you are mistaken enough to eat your milk skin, that’s fine but I will judge you a little.)

The milk skin taken care off, you *carefully* carry your bowl to the terrace. Depending on your age, this can be done confidently, or with snail like slowness, gaze fixed on the milk to make sure it doesn’t slosh and spill over the side of the bowl. Then go back to get your baguette, and finally, you are ready to take your place at the table.

Take the croissant out of the bag (bonus if it’s the last one and you get to crinkle the bag up in your hands), and then commence.

Dunk the croissant in and take a bite. The Chocolat Chaud will be too hot and will burn your mouth a little. That is good. The croissant will also soak up too much milk and chocolate so that, as you bite, milk will run down your chin, down your hand, down your forearm. You will stain the tablecloth and your pyjamas. Someone (probably your mother) will sigh and hand you a napkin.

Now, you can avoid soaking yourself in milk if, as you bite, you do a huge ssshhhhhlurp. Of course some will still go down your chin but that’s part of the fun.

The baguette is less messy but the challenge here is how much dunking you can achieve while keeping the baguette horizontal enough so that the jam doesn’t slide off the butter and into your bowl. I am quite the expert at this by the way.

When you are finished, drink the Chocolat Chaud, now at the right temperature and full of bits of bread, croissant, jam and butter.

Then, recline back, full to bursting, and happy as a pig rolling in an enormous pile of elephant dung.

In other words, heaven.