The Red Dress

Gathering dust, in the far corner of her wardrobe. She didn’t check in on it any longer, but Annabelle always knew it was there.

A flash of scarlet when she rummaged at the back after her comfortable leggings. A small tug at her heart. A shrug. A passing thought that she would come back to it later, when she was smaller, trimmer, sexier. Maybe Ted would look at her differently then. Maybe.

The days and weeks passed by. When she woke up one morning it had been five years. She thought guiltily of the dress, flattened by years pressed between old winter jackets, and ate another slice of cake. Her stomach distended comfortably within her elastic waisted jeans.

One day she checked in on it. Pulled it out, held it against her body. She wondered if she could slip into it like her old self could, and imagined how it would slink past her shoulders and surround her waist, hovering, floating, around her knees. Silk and gauze, satin and chiffon, all combined intricately to create an image of vivid, crimson beauty.

She sighed. She couldn’t make herself do it, and put it back on the hanger to wait another five years.

‘I’ll lose a few pounds then it will be fine.’

She didn’t, though.

In the middle of the night, when the dew glistened on the grass, singing as they perched atop the dark green blades, their voices rising in the black night, like the tinkle of a thousand small glasses clinking together; the wardrobe door opened.

It creaked a little, and Annabelle’s eyes opened. The ceiling glittered, as though there was moonlight shining on a body of water, and she found that odd, but she didn’t say anything.

The red dress swished a little. She didn’t know how she knew it was the dress, but she knew. She dared not look, for a strange fright took hold of her, clasping her neck gently with cold fingers. It slid out of the wardrobe, and as though there were a pair of dainty feet beneath the folds of chiffon, it danced ever so slowly across her floorboards, barely making a creak, and flew right out of her open window.

A gust of cool night air brushed her cheeks, and she felt her cold tears freeze.

The soft song of the dew outside drew her from beneath her sheets, and she glided over to the window in her red satin pyjamas, her eyes wide in wonder. For the world under the starry night sky was unlike any world she had seen before. The dew glittered on the grass like a thousand diamonds, and she saw the red dress among its blades. Only there was a woman within the chiffon folds, so faint and transparent she barely saw her, save for a flash of her throat as she turned her head gracefully in the moonlight, and a flutter of long, black lashes. Her hands hovered above the grass, caressing the plants, and she danced to the tune of the dew.

Annabelle stood, staring. She felt light as a feather, as though she, too, could glide out of the window and dance in the dew. She felt beautiful, like the invisible lady in the dress, and her limbs ached to move, but her eyelids felt heavy, and slowly, lulled by the soft music, they fluttered shut.

When she woke up the next morning, she was back in her warm bed. She threw her covers back and darted across the room, flinging her wardrobe door open. There was her dress, right at the front, the hem soaked.

She glanced back at her window. It was closed.

Later that evening, when glasses clinked and the chatter of content adults rose towards the ceiling of the large drawing room downstairs, a stunning young woman walked down the stairs. She was soft and warm, her jet black hair piled at the back of her head, and gleaming curls cascaded down her bare shoulders. Teetering on the edge of her shoulders, the satin sleeves of her crimson dress nestled. She walked confidently, and her dress brought out the glitter in her large, dark eyes. Ted could not take his eyes off her. Who on earth was she?

Annabelle walked down the stairs, feeling quite unlike her usual self. She glanced around, watching people talking and laughing amongst themselves. She wished she didn’t wear it. She felt the satin stretch a little around her waist. It looked so glamorous in the mirror, but now she wasn’t quite so sure. She had the sudden urge to wear it tonight, instead of her loose grey gown that she always wore. Her mother handed her a tall glass of something red and sweet, and she held it in her hands, looking around to mingle.

‘Goodness gracious me, is that Annabelle?’

She glanced up.

‘Janey! You decided to come after all!’

‘Yes, darling, but you look fabulous!’

‘Do you really think so?’

‘Oh, darling, you are positively stunning! I didn’t recognise you at first! And goodness me, Ted can’t take his eyes off you.’ She leaned towards her conspiratorially, breathing the last sentence out at her, before gulping down the rest of her drink and setting it down on the table next to her, ‘Right, I’m off to dance with some fine young gents,’ and she gave Annabelle a peachy kiss on her flushed cheek, before sailing gaily away.

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The Girl in the Mirror

‘My mother was a witch.’

He laughed loudly. Throwing his head back to let his mirth spill into the night air. She looked piqued at his reaction to her confession.

‘I mean it. She really was!’

‘Okay, sure. What, she was so mean to you?’

‘God, no. Never mean to us at all. She was an enchantress.’ 

She watched his eyes search her face for the lie. There was no lie, however. She bit her lip.

‘Go on,’ he prodded, finally.

She had the night sky in her eyes.’

He rolled his.

When she spoke, her voice was like the angels. So gentle, so quiet. A calming effect in the stormiest of seas. When my little sister bawled my mother sang to her. She swayed about the room, swishing her skirts and singing until my sister, sprawled on the floor, stopped her fit and stared in wonder.’

He shrugged, ‘She loved her mother.’

It was more than that.’

The silence hung between them like a heavy drape. The air was still, the stars above twinkling brightly. The city spread beneath them, their feet resting solidly on the edges of the plateau. He was staring out at the lights, she couldn’t read the expression on his face.

‘Well?’

Well?’

‘More than what?’

Oh. She was ethereal. Every mundane experience we had was something magical when she became involved. The table was a plateau. The fox was a wolf. The bread was cake dripping with honey. The blossoms were homes for the fairies and the daises were their purple tinged dresses.’

He turned to look at her then. His blue eyes looked black in the darkness. His face was thrown into shadow. She saw his outline against the backdrop of lights, which spilled into the inky blackness of the sky above, so that the stars over the city vanished, even though the ones above them were so brilliant.

‘You really loved your mother.’

His voice was soft. Sad.

I loved her, yes. But even if I hadn’t, even if I hadn’t’

‘How did she die?’

She looked down at the city again. She could hear it, all the way from here. The sound of  a rising highway. The sound of hundreds of machines. A loud, yet soft humming. A thrumming in the earth. The roots of concrete and people. She knew this was not the natural noise the earth made, and it made her feel part of something greater, somehow. As though she wasn’t entirely alone.

She didn’t.’

‘What?’

She didn’t die. She just tripped back through the mirror from where she came’

‘Emily, come on..’

‘My father always said that she stepped out of the mirror one day. He called her the Girl in the Mirror, when we were children, and we would laugh at him, calling him silly. He would tug at her long black tresses sometimes, and his eyes would look at her sadly. Once, when I was ten years old, he held her in his arms and whispered, ‘thank you for giving me your four little gifts’ – he meant us, of course. When she went back in, he told us it was her time to go back, and that she had left us four for him to always remember her by.’

‘Emily..’

She did not look at him. Her large violet eyes reflecting the thousands of lights spread before her.

There’s a girl in my mirror. I know she is not me. Sometimes when I blink, she doesn’t. Her smile is a little more sly than mine.’

‘I think this is all your imagination.’

And once I caught her making faces at my little sister.’

‘A coping mechanism, to cope with the pain of losing your mother..’

We are enemies now.’

‘Emily..’

I’ve always wondered who my mother’s Other Woman was. And if she looks like her at all. And if she knows her Mirror Woman came out and lived with us for a while.’

He didn’t say anything. Her face had a faraway quality to it. He realised that she wasn’t even there, with him, at that moment. He didn’t know if she’d heard anything he had said. He began to wish he hadn’t said it at all.

A low breeze wafted suddenly through the trees behind them, tugging gently at her long, ethereal black tresses, that cascaded all the way down her back. He heard it, swishing in the leaves and rumbling in the sky, he saw her dress move with it, but he didn’t feel it.

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Swarm

She was eloquently gut wrenching.

It couldn’t be said any other way. Languidly staring out of the dust-encrusted windows, the hazy afternoon sunshine filtering in through cracks on the caked grime. The dust mites did their peaceful thing, swirling in the slants of the lights, deceiving you into sobriety while the world burned outside.

There was nothing to look at, really. Everything was covered with white drapes, to protect the furniture from the same dusty decline that the floorboards had succumbed to. Termites, most likely.

She tiptoed cautiously around the holes, her boots making a suspicious crunching sound on the floor, amid, I then saw, mounds of sand, and small curled dead insect bodies.

‘I used to live here.’ I murmured.

She didn’t say anything. I stared at the ceiling; years of cobwebs interlacing each other, like an old, grey, time-worn wedding gown. The wooden beams arched upwards, meeting in a concave point high above our heads. When she stopped walking, the silence hissed loudly, pressing in on us, trapped and seething beneath the heavy roof.

‘Dina?’ she began, tentatively.

‘Hmm?’

‘I’m sorry I lied.’

‘You told me you had stage four brain cancer.’ I said, shortly. The sign outside creaked ominously, breaking the hissing silence my words had left behind them.

She shrugged. Her eyes were unreadable. She would do it again, and again, and again. Who would her next naive, fully supporting victim be?

Her hands brushed gently over one of the white sheets covering something sharp. She made as though to pull it off.

‘No.’

She stopped, looking expectantly at me. When I didn’t say anything else, she pulled it off anyway. Her mouth was set and firm, and I watched with a smirk that etched itself on my face against my will as a swarm of wasps surged out from under the sheet and swarmed towards her, as the sheet drifted to the ground amid a cloud of dust and stray wasps. Her shriek was lost in the loud, swirling drone.

I backed away slowly, feeling the wall behind me until I was at the entrance, my feet scraping on the piles of dust beneath me. A force field developed around the obstacle before me. I was alarmed, yet a little excited. I wanted to watch, I wanted to help, but I also wanted to desperately to run away as fast as I could.

So I did. I shut my eyes and turned away, opening them to the dim, cobwebby hallway. I wrenched the front door open, the wood fat and swollen with rot, and it crumbled against the wall behind me as I raced out and through the empty street, my feet flying past the brown rubble and ash covered doorways.

The sound was deafening. The image of her vanishing beneath the swarm clung to my brain and tugged at the edges of my heart, or my gut. I don’t know. I didn’t look back. I kept going.

The Night Bus

Alex wasn’t known to travel the Night Bus. She had always been told it was for the likes of misguided sorcerers, and unsavoury beings. She had been brought up to be afraid of the Night Bus, namely because it operated at the Witching Hour and vanished when the faint glow of light in the far east appeared. People, or rather, her family, did not suppose she would ever associate herself with such darkness.

But Alex wasn’t afraid. Alex was not afraid of much anything. She felt contemptuous every time George warned her about waiting for a Night Bus. She thought he was being over-protective and altogether too controlling. When her mother died, and her family disintegrated like a dead, dried out insect, Alex found herself more and more prone to follow her feet towards the solitary black lamppost on the corner of Night street.

A small sign hung from the top, creaking as it swayed gently, even when there was no breeze. Scratchy black writing scrawled across it:

Night Bus. Ticket Holders Only

What did that mean? ‘Ticket holders only?’ Where did one acquire a ticket for the Night Bus? There certainly didn’t seem to be any ticket offices anywhere nearby. She’d even asked at the town bus depot. They all shook their heads and shrugged, equally baffled. And yet Alex had seen the bus trundle along the cobbled streets through town, swaying from side to side, filled with people.

What kind of people? They didn’t all look like vagabonds and destitute sorcerers. Why, she had even seen a little old woman with a flowery hat, nose pressed against the glass as the bus sailed past Alex’s window one dark night in November.

She’d waited sometimes at the black lamppost. She crept out just before the Witching Hour, when everybody at home were sound asleep, the dim glow from Father’s oil lamp glimmering under his study door, and made her way through the dewy grass and over the cold slabs of paving, to await the Night Bus.

It never came. She heard it rumbling in the distance, and sometimes caught a glimpse of a pair of large headlamps sweeping over darkened windows, but it never passed her and it certainly never stopped at the lamppost.

She knew it did for some people, though. If she leaned out far enough from her bedroom window on some nights, she saw it come round the corner and judder to a halt. She watched shadowy figures clamber on, and some hop off, waving canes, whispering, plodding along, scattering through the maze of cobbled roads that snaked through the city, vanishing into the nightly mist that clung to the sides of buildings and wafted across avenues.

How, thought Alex, am I to go about finding myself a ticket?

The Girl Who Stopped Growing

The moment when Lem Pringle realised that she was no longer growing took it’s fine old time to reach her, clambering like a rheumatic old man to lodge itself in a firm nook in Lem’s vivacious brain.  By then she had not been growing for a fair amount of time. Months, even. Her hair hung silky and chestnutty as ever, in limp ringlets just below her shoulder blades, stark against her brown, bony back. She measured it with a ruler. It hadn’t grown an inch! She was particular about her hair. She washed it in honey every other week, as her mama taught her, and she liked to lie on the grass sometimes, her hair cool as it fell over her face, breathing in the soft, sweet scent of honey and grass, a faint lemony fragrance that hung about her wherever she went.

Lem, Alex certified, was a very lemony child. Alex was Lem’s older, oldest and only sister.

But Lem really was not growing. Her nails had been trimmed four months ago, and they remained neatly trimmed. This, Lem mused, was not a terrible thing. At least she didn’t have to go through the hassle of cutting her nails every week. She looked at them often, under the table at school, when her hands twisted forwards and backwards over the handlebars of her bike as she whizzed through streets and up hills, thighs burning. She watched her nails very carefully when she ironed the family’s clothes on Sunday mornings. She glanced at them when she wrote her compositions for school, when she buttoned up her dress, when her small brown paws caressed her bows as she mused over which one she would choose that day.

They stayed the same.

Once she showed them to Finn.

“Look at my nails,” she said, walking into his shed one rainy day. Finn glanced, not really looking. He was carving something pretty. Later Lem saw the pretty thing on Alex’s chest of drawers. Alex never put anything on her chest of drawers.

Lem wondered if Finn thought they looked the same as four months ago. “Have my nails changed, Finn?”

He didn’t notice how big and brown her eyes were, how they were brimming with invisible tears.

“They’re very pretty,” he said. He smiled at her. Lem liked Finn’s smile. It rarely showed itself in full glory. It was a slow smile, and took it’s time to appear. Lem thought that you had to really like Finn to be patient enough to wait for his smile to get ready to present itself. It began as a small twitch of the corners of his mouth, and then small dimples appeared in his cheeks, they took their time to deepen as his mouth stretched from side to side, his teeth peeking out, the joy spreading from his lips to his eyes, dancing, merry, like the stars glittering in jubilant festivity.

She liked waiting for smiles. Too many people gave up too quickly. They didn’t look at other people, really look, long enough. They retreated quickly into themselves. They were afraid. Of what, though? Lem decided that they were missing out. She was glad she waited for Finn’s smile. She decided to always wait for people’s smiles. If they didn’t arrive. she hurried them on by giving them some of her own. That always made smiles travel faster. Smiles are attracted to smiles.

Lem didn’t care if her nails were pretty, of course. Lem wasn’t worried about such things. She just wanted them to grow. She wanted them to scratch her involuntarily when she clambered up a tree, or pulled on a pair of comfy woolly socks. She wanted to say, “Oh. Hallo. I need a nail cutter.” or “ouch. My nails are getting quite long now. I must give them a small chop”

She even wanted to trawl all over the house hunting for a nail cutter, eventually finding it somewhere ridiculous like under George’s bed, or in the fridge. Or in the sugar bowl. That was a grimy state of affairs, Lem remembered fondly.

Alas, she wasn’t growing at all. The height chart on George’s doorframe grew faded. Nobody raced to be taller anymore. Nobody glugged their milk down with ferocious determination.

When Lem Pringle looked down at her feet, they were the exact same distance that they were the last time she looked. They certainly weren’t getting nearer. But they weren’t getting further either.

****

If you have managed to make it this far, dear reader, could you let me know what you think? Only if you are inclined to, of course. This is an excerpt from a longer novel that I am currently writing. I have been working on this particular story for about three years now. My heroine is mentioned in this blog post.

How not to murder a romance.

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I want to write a romance (the younger version of myself would vomit at these words.. Sorry, younger Len. It had to happen) about a young boy and a young girl who are neighbours. They both have the attic rooms of their respective houses, and their windows are two dormer windows poking out of the same roof (semi-detached houses).

I wrote a screenplay about this for an assignment. I think the younger me resurfaced though and rained a vicious tantrum over this story, coating it in morbid drama. The young boy decided to kill the young girl, and he went about it in the most cruel way possible. There was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it. No matter which way I tried to turn it, the act was inevitable.

He seemed so nice at first, did George. He was caring and sweet and so charming. Perhaps that was his downfall. I was sad that it had to come to that.

I think I am not cut out to write a decent romance.

I don’t want to write romance like the erotic fiction section in the library. I don’t want to write chick flicks either, about domestic goddesses and frenzied young ladies who ‘don’t believe’ in love until a handsome, dashing bad boy comes and whisks them away against their will and they can’t help falling for him.

I don’t want that.

I want to write a coming of age story about a small girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders. A girl who meets all sorts of odd characters, not because she is a novel girl, a story book girl, but because she goes out of her way to talk to people, and learns that everybody is a character. A girl who leaves an impression wherever she goes, not because she is beautiful or possesses magic powers, but because her mind is a beacon; a vast ocean of imagination and creativity and intelligence.

I want her romance not to whisk her away, but to creep up on her playfully and poke her on the shoulder like an old friend.

I don’t want scenes of her doing intimate things, I want scenes of exploration and chatter. Scenes of life in ways we have never experienced.

I don’t want George to murder her. I want another young man to come along and steer her ship with her.

I want her to go back to her house and stand at her dormer window and look out at the city in the sunrise, her hair flying about everywhere. The Phenomenal Girl walks along the street, road reading, her hair decorated with an array of colourful cloths, her rainbow socks poking out over a pair of old boots, and she looks up to see my protagonist and waves her book at her. The Red Lady shakes her carpets out of her windows and calls out to my protagonist that it looks like rain today and not to let the sun deceive her. A man in a patchwork topcoat raises his hat to her, and waggles his bushy eyebrows. He can’t talk. I want the girl to look to her right at the empty dormer window next to hers.

I don’t want to know if they live happily ever after. I don’t want to know how many children they have. I just want to write about the connection between two fantastic minds. I want to know how the boy sees her fiery thoughts, and how he catches them before they escape. I want to know that the girl isn’t oblivious to love. I want her to welcome it

like,

an,

old,

friend.

I don’t want to know what she looks like, I want to know what adorns her mind.

Is she white? Is she brown? Is she yellow? Is she red? I don’t care. She is her. In fact, I don’t want any description of her features whatsoever.

Insert Feature Here.

She can be anybody you want. She can be you.

But how do I write all this without murdering her before the story has even begun!?!?

The Summer of the Rooks

Can you ever tell when the Rooks come into town?

flock of rooks

They swarm in on the sunrise, that’s what. From far away they look like any old birds. A flock of geese, perhaps, flying home after a long winter away.
But rooks are more sinister than that. They squawk and caw along with the crows, in graveyards.
I heard they were carnivorous birds too. Which is especially morbid, when you think about it. What are these awful carnivorous birds doing loitering about graveyards? Lots of meat in graveyards, if you ask me.
The summer of the Rooks is different, though. Every four years there is a Summer of the Rooks. It occurs when all the Rooks from all over Urigal fly to the capital city of that land, and there is much merrymaking as the days grow longer, and the minstrels walk about in long beautiful gowns, their long tresses bleached golden by the sun, their voices trilling in sad beauty; the markets are groaning with produce, the people were at peace and rest. All is right with the world. Once every four years.
This year, of course, was no different. Twig was alive, as Twiggy as ever. His shock of white blond hair was positively silver that summer, the sun had been out so much. His cousin Delilah was as delightfully moody as ever, and as protective of her cousin Twig as she always was. His best friend George, the Pie-Boy, as the Phenomenal Girl liked to call him, was ever present. And yet there was a look in his eye which suggested that he possibly had a past which was finally catching up to him. His violet eyes no longer twinkled with merriment. He had started to talk about an Alex, a Lem, and a Tristan. He had started the twitchings one always knew were Home-sick Twitchings, and yet nobody acknowledged them because it was a Summer of the Rooks, and everybody was meant to be content.
Rooks by day, folks. Rooks by night. Why was the Summer of the Rooks always so splendid, when rooks themselves were such morbid birds?
Well, quite simply, the people of those lands believed them to be good omens. Omens of happy tidings, of lush fields and great yield, of fat cows that gave full, rich, creamy milk, of hens that laid half a dozen eggs a day; each, of snails that ignored lettuces, of worms that happily wriggled through soils, of fish that flashed silver in a river that was a sea of bounty, of days filled with warmth and laughter and food, of people who did not know hunger or sadness or irritability because they had all they could ever want in one season.
I wore a woolly hat, that summer.
Twig commented on it. He said, “Cor, Pegs, that’s a beautiful hat you have on”
George told me his sister Lem had the exact same hat. It was just a normal hat. Blue, with zig zag stripes, and patterns in white wool. It had a little pom bobble on top, and two strings hanging by my ears. I wore it everywhere. I wore it in the forest when I went looking for blackberries. I wore it in the strawberry fields, I wore it everywhere, I tell you, everywhere.
It was never cold on the Summer of the Rooks, so I really cannot say I had a solid reason for wearing my hat. Nobody asked me, however, so I didn’t say anything. Nobody stared at me, or told me I was a tad odd. They didn’t even think it, I don’t think. I don’t know why nobody questioned it. Not even Rob. I don’t know why Rob didn’t question it.
We were walking over the bridge, me and Rob. When this huge cloud rolled up, cracking like some huge angry beast had slammed a stone fist into it. Lightning tore a great rift in this black cloud, and Rob and I shrank back from the monstrous beauty of it all, as the thunder clapped around us, a deafening sound, reverberating around our skulls.
Then the rain began. Soft at first, then huge, like ten penny pieces, slamming on our heads and shoulders.
I looked at Rob, and he was smiling at me through the rain, his eyes were golden because he was Rob and he had golden eyes, and his eyelashes, which I have always admired because of their supreme length, had beads of water dangling on their pretty tips, and his hair hung over his face as rivulets slid down it, and he was smiling through the deluge, down at me, and he said,

“Your woolly hat is all wet”

And beyond him, I saw the rooks, crowing through the rain in mockery, not seeming in the least ruffled by the downpour.
rooks in rain

So what was it about Ocean Bream?

In the winter of 2010, I read a beautiful story called The Spellbook of Listen Taylor. It was enchanting. I say this now, although my memory of the plot and characters have severely diminished, because even after three years have passed, the magic and intrigue I felt whilst reading it still lingers in the wake of its memory.

So how does ocean bream relate to it, I hear you ask? Well, you see, it came as a frequent phrase in the book, one that caught me in it’s glittery snares and has not let me go since. One of the characters (I think it might have been a Cassie of some sort, now that I fling my memory back) was obsessed with the yearning for somebody to ask her the following question, “How is your ocean bream, my love?”

Now, given that she yearned for somebody (somebody decidedly of the male gender) to ask her such a thing, it was reasonable to expect that an ocean bream must have been something edible, because Cassie (I think) always said that her somebody would ask her this question at dinner.

I, however, chose to ignore the fact that it could be edible, because Ocean Bream is such a beautiful word, and gave way to a wide variety of surging possibilities, each pulsing with the excitable glow of blissful oblivion. So I put off looking the word up for as long as I could, even weeks after I had finished that fascinating, beautiful, delumptious book.

Finally I could bear it no longer, I prepared myself for disappointment, because throughout my literary life, I had found that nothing was quite as magical as writings made them seem. Cassie (or so I reckon) was always vague about what category of life ocean bream fit into, and all I knew was that it was something to be asked over dinner. So, I pushed my notebook aside (full of musings on the fascinating and elusive ocean bream; e.g. ‘How is your ocean bream, my love? Oh, it’s simply divine today, thank you. It’s got a strawberry trail behind it, amid gloops of shining somethings. The sunlight beams on it and it flits away leaving behind a euphoric glamour. My ocean bream is simply magical today. Or, ‘How is your ocean bream, my love?’ Not so vibrant today, actually. It’s a tad dim, but as blue as ever, shimmering with streaks of silver. Actually I think it’s yellow, sailing past my window, leaving behind a blue sky and sunshine! Why, the magic never fails, does it!’ Because, to me, ocean bream was magic in itself. The beautiful, haunting magic of fairies and pixies and delumptious godmothers who smelled of frosting and bread), switched on my computer and typed “Ocean Bream” into the search engine. Google, to be precise.

I used to think ocean bream was a magic that sailed by. I used to think it was the way sunlight dappled a mossy forest floor, or the way it twinkled between the nodding leaves of a woodland canopy, or the way it shimmered on an ocean bed, refracted and swirled by the ever moving surface of the water.

So when I discovered that it was just a fish, my mind started to work some magic of its own. And now, I reckon my favourite fish is the ocean bream. Not to eat, though. Never to eat. Ocean bream is too sacred for that.