As you may know, I set up this blog to promote my children’s book ‘Tortoise Soup’ starring brave little orphan Ruby Tinker and her loveable tortoise Byron. Well, as a special Christmas treat on Saturday I will be releasing ‘Happy Tortoise Christmas’, a new e-book available exclusively from Amazon. It will be two books in one – for younger readers there will be a Christmas poem about how a little torty has to step in and take the place of Rudolph! There are seven beautiful illustrations (in colour as well if you have one of the newer Kindles or read it on a phone or tablet) and it should help the little ones get in the Christmas spirit. Here’s a sketch of the first illustration.
Alongside the poem there will be a brand new Byron and Ruby adventure – a seven chapter novella called ‘Byron And The Mince Pie Spy’. Can our heroic duo save the day when the village of Auchtinoo is threatened by a rogue santa? Children from 8 to 108 will enjoy finding out! As a special Christmas treat I am publishing the first chapter completely free below. I hope that you are having a wonderful Advent!
Byron And The Mince Pie Spy – Chapter One
Auchtinoo is a village in Scotland, close to the border with England. The village has a school, an inn, shops, lots of farms and streams where salmon leap playfully from the water. There are woods nearby were deer with big antlers roam wild and free and happy, and the people of Auchtinoo are just as happy and free, even if they are a little less wild.
The village had an air of excitement hanging over it every December. It was looking forward to its annual Father Christmas competition, people would come from far and wide to dress as Santa and the winner would win a bottle of whisky, a huge Christmas pudding and enough crackers to last a lifetime. Little did the people of Auchtinoo know that this year some people were watching from the shadows and plotting – they had a fiendish plan to ruin Christmas for ever!
Ruby Tinker lived in a big house on the edges of Auchtinoo. She lived with her Uncle Peter and Auntie Francesca, and their friends and helpers Eli and Tanya Tigerlily. There was one more inhabitant of Auchtinoo Hall where they lived – he had four legs, a wonderfully smooth shell and a little head with a beautiful tortoise smile. His name was Byron, and he and Ruby loved each other very, very much.
When Ruby had first been brought to Auchtinoo to live with her Uncle she had been very sad. Byron had been left behind in the Children’s Home where they had been staying. Every day at school she would sit silently at the back of the class, she never raised her arm to answer a question – even though she knew most of the answers. Ruby didn’t play with the other children and they never invited her to join in their games. The other children thought that she was strange because she didn’t speak, and she walked in a funny way with metal supports on her legs and she always had such a gloomy look on her face. Only one classmate made an effort to speak to Ruby and her name was Faria.
Faria had come from a country far, far away and because of that some of the other children thought that she didn’t belong in their school – they left her to sit at the back of the class alongside Ruby because nobody else wanted to sit there.
Faria was a very kind girl, if only her classmates had bothered to find out. She could tell that Ruby was sad and sometimes when she could see the tears welling up in Ruby’s eyes she would reach over and hold her hand under the desk so that she knew she had a friend.
Things changed for Ruby after Byron came to live with them. What an adventure he’d had to get there and what a difference it made to Ruby. She became the happiest girl in Auchtinoo, always laughing and singing. She would clap her hands when she saw bright yellow butterflies. When she saw the highland cows in the fields she would wave at them and they would stick their tongue out in a friendly greeting.
‘Those cows are just like me’, she told Byron one day, ‘with their lovely orange hair.’
‘Well if you’re going to be a highland cow, then I want to be one as well!’, said Byron the tortoise.
Ruby told this to Miss Tigerlily and the next day, to her surprise, she saw that Miss Tigerlily had knitted a little coat for Byron to go over his shell – it was made of shaggy orange wool. What fun Ruby and Byron had that day – stomping around their room together, mooing at each other!
Everybody at the school was amazed at the change in Ruby. She never stopped talking now, and the teachers were shocked at how clever she was -Ruby could answer the toughest of questions. She couldn’t run very well, but the children always made sure that they had games that she could play. She became a very popular girl, but there was one friend in particular that meant a lot to her.
Ruby hadn’t forgot the kindness that Faria had shown to her and she spent as much time with her as she could. Faria was very bright as well, but classes were a bit more difficult for her because every time that she was asked a question she had to translate it into her own language, in her mind, come up with the answer and then translate it back into English so that she could tell the teacher. Imagine how difficult that must be? By the time that she was ready with the answer somebody else had usually answered it for her.
Ruby would help her as much as she could, and when the rest of the class saw this they began to like Faria a little bit themselves – maybe she isn’t so bad after all if Ruby likes her so much?
It was the last day of term before the Christmas holidays began. Everybody was very excited. The teachers were wearing musical antlers and the children were allowed to play games all day long. Ruby’s desk was full of all the lovely Christmas cards that she had received but next to her Faria had only one card. It was from Ruby and had a big jolly snowman on the front.
Faria was so happy when she received it, nobody had given her a Christmas card before, but on the last day of term she looked very miserable. Ruby left the games to one side and put her arms around her friend.
‘Faria’, she said, ‘you look so sad today and everybody else is really happy. What’s wrong?’
‘Ruby, you are such a kind friend – I will miss you so much.’
‘Miss me? We will all be back at school in two weeks time.’
‘I won’t be back at this school Ruby, in fact I don’t think that I will see you again.’
Tears began to roll down Faria’s face. Ruby took a mince pie from her lunch box and handed it to her friend. The mince pies were hand made by Auntie Francesca – she makes the best mince pies in the world, they can cheer up anybody.
‘Tell me about it’, Ruby said as her friend ate into the lovely soft pastry.
‘My dad told me yesterday. There is something called a visa that lets people like us live in this country, and it’s run out. Dad has been trying to convince people to let us stay because it’s not safe where we came from but our last hope has gone. They are going to send us away just after the New Year and we’ll never be allowed into this wonderful country again.’
Faria started sobbing once more, although she did nibble at the mince pie between sobs.
Ruby wiped her friend’s tears away.
‘Try not to worry about it Faria. Come round to my house tomorrow, it’s the big one called Auchtinoo Hall. Eli says that my Uncle Peter is a very powerful man and he can do lots of things – I’m sure that he can come up with something that will let you stay here!’
Faria cheered up a little. She had never been to anybody’s house except her own and her dad had told her that there was nothing more that could be done for them. But Ruby sounded so determined, so convinced that her Uncle Peter could help that Faria allowed herself to become a little convinced as well. She looked at the card on her desk again and smiled. It read: “Hope you have a wonderful Christmas.”
That night Ruby told her Uncle and Auntie that her friend would be coming to visit tomorrow. They were very pleased with the news, whatever made their niece happy made them happy.
‘And there’s one more thing, Uncle Peter.’
‘What’s that, my poppet?’, he said as he peered over the top of his newspaper.
‘My friend Faria came to this country for help but in a few days they are going to send her away forever. I said that you might be able to help her?’
Uncle Peter put the paper down, carefully folded as always.
‘Help her, my dear? I wish that I could, but how can I help her? I’m just a boring old civil servant.’
Auntie Francesca gave him a stern look, the kind that she only ever used on him. He squirmed in his seat.
‘Well, I will see what I can do’, he said.
When she went to bed, Ruby told Byron all about it. Byron thought it was very sad – he remembered when Ruby had been sent away from him.
‘Do you think that Uncle Peter can help?’
‘I don’t know, Byron my love. He keeps saying that he is only a civil servant.’
‘What’s a civil servant?’, Byron asked. He always liked to learn new things from Ruby.
‘It’s a man who works for the government, Uncle Peter says it’s a very boring job – he just sits behind a desk all day tapping things into a computer. But’, and here Ruby’s voice fell to a whisper, ‘Eli told me that there is more to Uncle Peter than meets the eye. He says that he has a very special job, and he does special important things.’
Byron nodded his little head up and down.
‘I bet he does something special’, Byron said, ‘how can he afford a lovely big house like this if he only taps things into a computer? I’m going to keep an eye on him from now on.’
‘Oh Byron, you’re going to be just like a tortoise spy!’
Ruby winked at Byron and Byron winked back at Ruby.
There was a knock at the door and Auntie Francesca came in.
‘It’s an early night for you two adventurers. We’ll all have to be up early in the morning if we are having a visitor. I’m going to bake some more mince pies specially for the occasion! Night night Byron, night night Ruby.’
She turned off the special light that hung above Byron’s enclosure and he yawned and trotted slowly off to bed. His enclosure was a big wooden box made especially for him by Eli. It had slates for him to eat off, and a water dish. It was covered in soil that he liked to dig in and hide under sometimes and there were lots of pebbles for him to push around and play with. At one end of the box was a little room with a roof on top and straw on the floor. This was his bedroom.
Auntie Francesca covered Ruby in kisses, as she did every night, pulled the bedsheets around Ruby’s shoulders and turned off the light. The two friends were soon fast asleep.
Morning came and the house was alive with excitement. Miss Tigerlily was helping Auntie Francesca in the kitchen, she had flour on her face. The strange thing was that when Ruby saw Eli go past the window he also had a smudge of flour on his face.
Byron, who Ruby had brought downstairs with her, laughed. He often saw Eli and Tigerlily give each other a peck on the cheek when they thought nobody was looking.
‘I’ve heard them speak’ said Byron, ‘and I think that they are planning to get married!’
That was the advantage of being a little tortoise, people said things in front of you that they would never say in front of anyone else. Ruby’s heart leaped for joy – perhaps they would ask her to be a bridesmaid?
There was a timid knock at the front door and Auntie Francesca rushed to answer it, wiping her hands on her apron before she did.
The door was opened and Faria walked shyly in. Auntie Francesca hugged her and planted a big kiss on the girl’s forehead. Uncle Peter held out a hand and said, ‘Pleased to meet you Faria. Ruby has told us all about you.’
Uncle Peter liked to be very formal in everything. He could come across as a bit of a stick in the mud but that was just his way – everybody who knew him knew that he had a very big heart.
Ruby and Faria sat on the big leather sofa and watched cartoons, swinging their legs happily as they did. There was a beautiful smell of baking wafting through the house.
‘This is Byron, my tortoise and the bestest and bravest friend that a girl could ever wish for.’
Ruby held Byron up in front of Faria’s face. Faria reached out and touched his shell – it was lovely to stroke and Byron smiled at the new guest.
‘Hello Byron’, she said with a giggle.
‘Hello, little lady. What’s your name?’
‘My name is Faria’, she said.
Byron was surprised to receive an answer. He decided to test her.
‘How many legs have I got?’, he asked her.
‘You’ve got four legs of course, silly.’
‘Wow! You can hear me.’
‘Yes, I can hear you. Shouldn’t I?’
Byron was open mouthed in amazement, it was left to Ruby to explain.
‘Byron and I always talk to each other – but nobody else can ever hear him until now. You must have a special bond with Byron if you can hear what he says. How lovely – now there is no way that we can let them send you away!’
The three friends sat on the sofa playing ‘I spy with my little eye’, until Auntie Francesca called them into the kitchen.
‘Ruby! Faria! The mince pies are ready!’
The kitchen smelled heavenly and the mince pies tasted even better than they looked. A mouse ran across the kitchen floor, unseen by anyone except Ruby, Byron and Faria who let out an eek.
‘Shush!’, said Ruby, ‘it’s a nice and friendly mouse – I drop him a few crumbs sometimes and he seems to like them.’
Ruby dropped a little pastry onto the floor and the mouse gobbled it up, smiled at them and ran off.
Auntie Francesca, helped by Miss Tigerlily, packed the mince pies into two cardboard boxes.
‘Now remember girls,’ she said, ‘the ones in the blue box are for us but the ones in the red box are especially for Uncle Peter.’
‘That’s right!’, Uncle Peter shouted from his study (he always heard everything whenever his name was mentioned), ‘I’m taking the ones in the red box over to the office later, for my workmates to share.’
Ruby, Faria and Byron returned to the living room. Byron was telling Faria about his many adventures – how he had once been swallowed by a snake and how he had flown through the air underneath a big bird, how he had been shot at and how a nasty woman had tried to bury him under the soil. But now here he was in a lovely warm house where everyone treated him as if he was the king of tortoises! Faria listened in awe, she was so excited that she forgot her own troubles for a while.
The girls kept going back to the kitchen and returning with new mince pies, this gave Byron an idea. He would play a fun little Christmas trick on them. While Ruby and Faria were engrossed in a cartoon he walked slowly out of the living room and into the kitchen. I will hide myself in the box of mince pies, he said to himself, and when they come to get one and see me in there what a surprise it will be!
There were two boxes, one blue and one red. Byron tried hard to remember which box it was that was for them – blue or red, red or blue? Ruby’s hair is red, he reasoned, so that must be best! He pushed himself onto his back legs and clambered up and into the red box. Now he had to sit and wait!
The girls were engrossed in their cartoons, they didn’t even notice that Byron had gone. Many minutes had passed when they heard Uncle Peter scream. It had come from the kitchen.
They walked as fast as Ruby’s legs would allow and found that everyone was in the kitchen looking at the one box that remained on the floor. Uncle Peter stood with a horrified look on his face and his hands were on his head.
‘They’ve gone, they’ve gone! Somebody’s taken the red box of mince pies! This is the worst thing that could ever happen!
It was then that they noticed that the kitchen window was open where it hadn’t been before.
‘They’ve broken in and taken the box with the top secret mince pies!’, Uncle Peter shouted.
Top secret mince pies? Ruby was confused, perhaps Byron could make sense of it all? She looked round but Byron was nowhere to be seen.