The One Where the Year Doesn’t Start Quite as You Expected

We’re just over halfway through Feb. How has your year been so far?

Mine’s been busy, but … I’ve not quite achieved as much as I was hoping for. For one, a major client has gone completely quiet on me, and I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ve made little income so far from my freelance writing this year, compared to the last three months of last year. And a lot of my personal goals have turned out to be unrealistic, it seems. I haven’t been reading, working on my novel or practicing French as much as I’d like. I was hoping to have finished the first draft of my novel by the end of March but, no way is that going to happen. That’s obviously too ambitious.

And when can I get a damn haircut??

I know, I know, I’ll just have to wait. I’m certainly not going to do it myself:

Image result for bad haircut gif

I think I just want to go and hide in Stardew Valley and weep over my lack of achievement or social life ☹

No, that’s not the way!! We must keep pushing onwards, forwards!

How do you cope with disappointment?

Nicola

X

How 2020 Changed Me

Firstly, I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to my followers and anyone else who might be visiting this site. Hope you all had a pleasant, albeit slightly-different Christmas.

Mine was a bit of a blue one. First world problems and all that, but I was affected by the fact that the Christmas just gone didn’t feel all that Christmassy. But then there was also the problem that I always find it hard to switch off anyway at Christmas (it doesn’t help I have a part-time job in retail), mainly due to the fact that I have that sort of brain. And I think I may be affected by SAD to a degree.

But I always love the promise of a new year, and especially so for 2021. I think many of us will agree that 2020 was a year we’ll quite happily leave behind. And yet I can’t say that 2020 was a very difficult year for me, personally. I am fortunate to still have an income, and to know no-one close to me who has died from COVID-19.

There’s a certain guilt in saying it, but I pretty much thrived in 2020. Sure, I was affected by the news and social media, and worried a lot about the state of the world and what the future might hold. But hey, I’m an INFJ, so I pretty much do those things anyway. All that really happened, was the outside world began to resemble some of the dystopian novel/tv series ideas of my inner world.

I know it’s not over yet, and there could be worse to come. But to quote the wise sage Hagrid, “What’s coming is coming and we’ll meet it when it does.” I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. I think many have conditioned themselves to expect the unexpected now.

The rapid shift to the online realm of work, education and entertainment meant I could finally, more completely align my daily life to my visions and goals.

But outside of these concerns, when I disconnected from the news and social media, I found a sense of peace and contentment. I enjoyed spending more time at home, enjoyed the greater proximity of nature and the peaceful nights. The rapid shift to the online realm of work, education and entertainment meant I could finally, more completely align my daily life to my visions and goals. I was now less restricted by living in a relatively rural part of the country. I began to get a freelance income – something I’d long dreamed of but was difficult to obtain pre-2020.

I did numerous training courses online, read more, took up actual hobbies and upped my fitness regimen. I even improved my diet. I started learning another language, and got inspiration from current events for a novel I’m in the process of writing.

So yes, I would say I thrived. And I have entered 2021 with the ability to drop another day at my retail job because I no longer need the money – I’m making enough income from freelance writing to support me.

True, I barely leave the house now, and that would be an issue if it were long-term, but hopefully it won’t be, and fairly soon we’ll be able to go to gyms and live events again.

I have changed. Something has clicked: I feel like I’ve found my niche. And having read similar articles to this, I know I’m not the only one. I think it’s great that many saw the opportunity to improve their lives and they took it.

How did 2020 change you? Did you view it as an opportunity in disguise? Or was it more personally challenging? I always like to read different viewpoints, so please feel free to comment or write a response post.

A Christmas Note

Just a quick note to thank my new readers and subscribers for this year. I appreciate your support and feedback. This year has been a year like no other – the world is changing and alas, we must change with it. There are many bad things happening in the world right now, but I am incredibly thankful that this year at least I seem to have found my calling, and things are clicking into place for me. I’m enjoying my work and looking forward to new projects in the future. I have a big list of things I want to accomplish next year, and I’m especially looking forward to reaching out more and trying to connect with like-minded people. Yes, I’m an introvert who works from home, but us introverts still need love, right?

I would like to wish anyone reading this a happy Christmas and new year. Remember the more important things and let’s march on into the future!

Until next time,

Nicola

X

What is Lo-fi Music and Why Is it so Popular?

Lo-fi music has become a major genre during the global lockdowns of 2020. Many people have found themselves stuck at home all day, trying to find the motivation to do work, study and chores, with more time to kill by going online, and the growth of lo-fi music has been the result.

So what exactly is lo-fi music?

It’s a form of downtempo music with elements of hip-hop and jazz, featuring breakbeats, sampling and textures such as environmental noise and vinyl scratching sounds. Samples are often taken from old films. This gives it a cosy, often nostalgic sound, ideal to relax to or as ‘bedroom music’.

Lo-fi music is found on popular streaming sites such as Spotify and also has dedicated YouTube channels, the biggest of them being ChilledCow. ChilledCow’s animation of an anime girl doing her homework has become an internet meme, such is the popularity of the channel.

It is indeed an ideal music genre to study to, which is probably why it has been especially popular for younger listeners. Unobtrusive enough to have on in the background but stimulating enough to keep you awake, it helps you maintain your focus. ChilledCow also has a chat function, so provides a place to hang out for people seeking connection during these somewhat isolating times, with many users opening up about personal issues.

The genre has not escaped criticism, however. Detractors have accused lo-fi creators of being lazy, as much of the music is essentially similar-sounding, and easy to make, with creators able to make their own material on apps such as Bandcamp (I myself have recently become a dabbler in Bandcamp). It has been argued that all you really need to know in order to create lo-fi music is how to sample (haven’t quite learnt that bit yet).

But it’s the sampling that really makes the difference. You can put a unique flavour on lo-fi music depending on what you choose to sample. A couple of my favourite lo-fi channels on YouTube include one which samples vintage songs and another which samples the Star Wars films (this last is especially fun).

And lo-fi music’s popularity shows no sign of dying out. The numbers speak for themselves: at the time of writing this article, Spotify’s biggest lo-fi playlist, ‘Lo-fi Beats’, has over three and a half million followers. And ChilledCow has nearly seven million subscribers.

Clearly, for many internet users, lo-fi music creates a safe space to work and study. The chat room functions also fulfil a social need during these strange times. The music is not always necessarily all that pioneering, true. But if it’s helping people, can we really knock it?

Many more people work and study from home these days. Without a dedicated workspace or office, lo-fi music helps create a kind of cocoon that reduces outside distractions and, due to its downtempo, calming properties, helps reduce anxiety.

Because we do seem to live in an age of anxiety. Whether it’s economic anxiety, the stress of living through lockdowns, or anxiety about COVID-19 itself, many people are increasingly escaping into the aural realm for relaxation.

I think millennials especially are drawn to lo-fi, and the evidence does seem to point to that – feeing the need as we sometimes do for a nostalgic, safe space to retreat. When we have fears about the future, the past is often a safe place to escape to.

Five Productivity Tips You May Not Know About, from A Fledging Freelancer

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

Many more people are working from home now, and perhaps, like me, you are pushing for your dream of becoming a freelancer. The matter of motivation, therefore, rests almost entirely on you and you alone. How can you increase your productivity? A quick Google search on the subject will yield hundreds of results, but with so much, often contradictory, advice, what is the best approach to take?

It all comes down to personal preference, of course. However, in this article I want to share five things that have really helped me and I think may help you too: some are recent discoveries; some are older, time-honoured tips but so easy to forget.

Anyway, without further ado, here they are:

1. Listen to Lo-fi

Or lo-fi hip hop to be more precise (or chillhop as it’s sometimes known). It’s a downbeat musical style that incorporates breakbeats, sampling and textures, and has gained massive online popularity during the worldwide lockdowns of 2020. It’s the ideal kind of music to listen to when you want to focus on work or study. This is because it’s unobtrusive enough to have on in the background, but stimulating enough to stop you from nodding off. There are many playlists and live-streams of lo-fi music on platforms such as YouTube and Spotify. Lo-fi music is easily my biggest productivity discovery of late, and I think you should give it a go.

 

2. Plenty of Daylight

By this I don’t mean you should work outside (although this always an option), but it’s worth remembering that daylight naturally makes us feel more awake. By making sure there’s plenty of daylight in your workspace, you’re more likely to be productive because you’ll feel less sleepy. So fling back those curtains and open those blinds – it’ll help. And fresh air is never a bad thing either.

 

3. Limit Distractions

It’s important to limit environmental distractions to increase your productivity and focus. Find a quiet spot to work in and invest in some noise-cancelling headphones if you need them.

It’s equally important to limit electronic distractions. You have to be strict with yourself here. Don’t check social media during your work or study time. Don’t keep checking your phone notifications or email inbox. A stable, predictable environment with as few distractions as possible will help your brain to focus better without becoming overtired.

 

4. Get Plenty of Sleep

If you’re tired, it’s going to be harder to focus. Fact. Tiredness will sap your motivation. You may overcompensate by drinking lots of coffee, but this can make you jittery and find it hard to concentrate on one thing at a time. The only sensible answer, then, is to get enough sleep.

What constitutes enough sleep will vary for each person. If six hours is enough for you, great. But if you need nine hours, make sure you get them. And if you’re not an early morning person, don’t try to force yourself to be. Getting up early will only increase your productivity if your body clock is used to it, not if you’re sleep-deprived. You have to work with your own natural rhythm.

 

5. Take a Break

Sometimes you’ll find, despite your best intentions, you just can’t focus. Maybe you’re tired, worried, stressed, or restless. Maybe you think you should just try to push through. But this probably won’t make you more productive. More likely you’ll just spend most of your time staring at a blank screen or trying desperately to understand a spreadsheet which normally wouldn’t be that difficult.

In this case, I think the best thing to do is give yourself a break. Just do what is absolutely necessary that day and cut yourself some slack for the rest of it. Take a nap. Go for a run. Spend time with friends or family. Whatever you need to do to recharge. Then, when you return to your work, you’ll be refreshed and maybe even inspired, and this will naturally increase your productivity.

 

I hope these tips help. Have you got any productivity tips you’d like to share? I’d be glad to hear them!

Furlough Thoughts

black vintage typewriter

Furlough. It’s a funny word. I thought it was something to do with ploughing fields until it happened to me. I’ve been on furlough from my day job for four weeks now, and I have to say I’m enjoying it, because it means I get to spend more time doing things I love, i.e. my writing.

So pretty much most of my time on furlough has been spent writing, thinking about writing, and planning marketing activities linked to my writing. I’ve been treating each weekday like a workday: each morning I make a list of things I want to accomplish that day. Then in the late afternoon I exercise and study German, then after dinner (or tea as we call it in our house) it’s time to chill: journal and read a book.

I’m content in the rhythm of my days. I know the lockdown and being on furlough has been hard for some people, but for me it’s been business as usual to be honest, except I have more time because I’m not going to work. I didn’t go out a lot anyway.

I’ve been looking into turning my Alice novelette into an ebook, researching my options, but have come up against two major hurdles: one is my dislike of Amazon, which is monopolising the ebook scene (as well as a lot of other things), and the other thing is basic lack of funds. I’m tight for cash at the moment and can’t really afford to publish through an alternative platform, such as Ingram Sparks, and pay for an ISBN code (which costs, like, £90 in the UK). I’ve already spent £100 on self-publishing a limited run of paperback volumes for friends and family. So I can’t really afford to spend more on promoting this novellette at the moment.

It’s a shame, because I’d like for my writing to reach a wider audience, but there’s time.

Another thing I’m focusing on while in furlough is trying to push my day-job in a more writerly direction. I’ve been applying for online copywriting jobs, and trying to get work as a freelancer. Early days, but I’m hopeful. I think my experience so far during furlough has confirmed freelancing would suit me. The only thing I’m missing is a nice cuddly cat or a dachshund to sit in my lap while I type, but I’ve got goldfish and they’re almost as good, right? They’re certainly cute, if not that cuddly.

So yes, I would say furlough has been good for me because it has given me more time to push for my dreams. How about you? Have you been furloughed and how have you found it?

Update on My Life

Hello followers! Today is my one-year anniversary on this blog. I would like to update it more regularly than I have been doing, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve finished my Alice novella and it’s all up on this blog now, in ten instalments.

So what’s it all about?

It’s about a 27-year-old woman, called Alice, who temps in an office. She’s a bit of a loner and feels she’s not quite where she wants to be in life. Then, one day, the Cheshire Cat appears inside her game of computer Solitaire, while all her work colleagues are in a meeting. This is the beginning of a strange journey for Alice, where she enters another realm and encounters some familiar fictional characters…

If this sounds like your thing, you can start reading from part one, here. I will also be publishing a very limited run of print copies – slim paperback volumes which are the very final, final, ‘perfect’ edition (which means they’ve been obsessively edited and proofread by me to within an inch of their lives).

I think I’ll also look into getting it published as an ebook format, a little further down the line.

My current project is: working on generating a bit of income for myself through freelance writing, editing, proofreading and transcription. If you have any work for me in these areas, please do get in touch via my contact form, or email themorningstarblog@gmail.com. I will charge very reasonable rates, as I’m just starting out, and looking to build up my contacts and CV.

I have also set up a BuyMeACoffee account. If you enjoy my writing, and wish to give a few pounds to show your support, it’d be greatly appreciated. Support a starving artist and all that (not that I’m technically an artist but you know what I mean…).

I want to start getting up in the early hours again as I’m way more productive when I do that. It can be hard to start off with, but I know if I push myself, I can get there. Plus, it’s lovely at this time of year, to hear the dawn chorus (I’m very emotionally invested in the birds of my neighbourhood). And then I can once again see the Morning Star!

Have a good day, and stay sane,

Nicola

Xx

Alice Part 10

XII.

Alice knocked on the door, and a man’s voice said: “Come in.”

Alice tiptoed around the door into the room, which seemed to be some sort of study, and was immediately assailed by the ticking of hundreds of clocks. They were everywhere: all over the walls and on every surface. He sat with his back to her at a writing desk beneath a giant stained-glass circular window, which looked like a clock: each segment was stained a different colour. A golden light seemed to fill the room.

He turned around to face her.

“Ah, Alice, I’ve been expecting you.”

His face was both young and old and yet nothing extraordinary. He had a sleepy expression and there were silver streaks in his carefully parted brown hair, which none the less was going ragged around the edges, as though he’d run a hand through it several times in excitement or frustration. He wore a dark suit of a conservative Victorian fashion with a white bow tie, though something about his air possessed the merest hint of dandyism.

“Is it really you?” asked Alice.

He patted himself. “I think so. Though I can never be quite sure. I always work on the assumption that I am myself. And you are you. Though I bet you’ve been confused on this journey.”

“I certainly have.”

Alice looked at all the clocks. Their ticking seemed very loud in the small room. She wondered how he could stand it.

“I am a Master of Time,” said Lewis Carroll. “And that is what you must become.”

Alice looked over at the papers on his desk. “What are you working on?”

“I’m writing a book upon the nature of reality. Does it ever occur to you, Alice, that our entire universe can be broken down into mere numbers?”

Alice shrugged. “I guess – no, not really.”

“Everything is numbers, Alice. We are all numbers.”

Alice looked around the strange room again. That golden light seemed to be everywhere.

“Am I dreaming?” she asked.

“Does it matter?”

Alice thought about it. “I must be,” she said, “because I’ve been able to control some things. Though not everything…”

“Such is life,” said Carroll.

“Did you invent this dream? Did you bring me here? They call you the Inventor.”

“Ah, but am I the real Inventor? Who can say who is dreaming the dream?”

“Is this meant to be some sort of puzzle? Why am I here?” asked Alice.

Carroll crossed one leg over the over and folded his hands over his knee. “Such a philosophical question. Where to begin?”

Alice tried a different tack.

“Okay, I’m going to go on the assumption that this is my dream. And you, apparently, have something to tell me.”

“Assumptions are all we ever have to go on,” said Carroll, and here he rose out of his seat and floated into the air, just like the Cheshire Cat.

“Why do so many impossible things happen here?” said Alice, turning on the spot as Carroll floated around her like an astronaut.

Carroll laughed. “A thing is not impossible merely because it is inconceivable. I assure you, Alice, that human reason has very definite limits.

“Take zero, for example,” he continued, floating around her. “It isn’t a number. It is nothing. It is the absence of a number. And yet, and yet – through a number of minute steps reaching into infinity, it somehow becomes a number one. Tell me, Alice, how is that possible?”

He turned upside down in mid-air and looked at her questioningly.

Alice shook her head. “I really don’t know.”

“That rather proves my point. And the universe is built on numbers, Alice, on finely-tuned calculations. But it is not for us to know everything. And how wonderful a thought that is! The space between understanding and non-understanding… that is where fancy lies; where creation happens…”

His face took on a dream-like expression as he slowly spun right-way-up again.

“But still we try to impose some order on things, and just as well, or there would be no civilisation. And humans impose their numbers on reality as they see it. Time, for example. Calendars. Clocks.”

Alice wondered what he was getting at.

“Time, Alice,” he remarked. “Time is of the essence. And you must become a Master of it. You have almost completed your journey here, Alice. You have almost crossed the board, from non-understanding to understanding.”

Alice thought of that story she kept meaning to write. She had some good ideas for it now, at any rate…

“Then, Alice,” he said, eyes widening,

there is no Time
    like the Present,”

and he slowly faded from view before her eyes, leaving nothing but the Cheshire Cat’s grin hanging in the air.

Then the room began to spin. The ticking of the clocks grew louder and louder, until it was almost deafening in her ears, and then –

Silence.

She was floating upwards, through darkness…

 

Epilogue.

Alice woke up. She was back at her desk. She was alone in the office. She glanced at the clock on the wall. It was twelve o’clock.

Had she been sleeping? Her computer screen had gone into screensaver. She wiggled the mouse, and there was her old Solitaire game, with no Cheshire Cat.

She was confused. If that had been a dream, why had it been so very vivid? And it seemed to have lasted for ages, like she’d been through a whole day. How could she be back at her desk as though nothing had happened?

She got up and walked across to the other side of the office to the kitchen area. She switched on the kettle and pondered, intensely.

The dream had had some sort of message… she thought over all the events that had happened: the fall… the tunnel… the beautiful garden… meeting Humpty Dumpty on the riverbank. The Mad Hatter and the March Hare. The Dark Forest and the White Knight… she should have asked the Red Queen to free the Knight. But would she have listened?
Then there was the Gryphon and the beach. Her child self: she’d had to let her go… the train and all the animals. Then the White Tower, and meeting Lewis Carroll at the top. And all the while, the omnipresent Cheshire Cat. He’d been the one who’d started it all.

She needed time, to get her head straight. As soon as her work colleagues were back, she’d take her lunch break and get out of the office, go for a walk. Because she needed to know: what did it all mean? And had it all been a dream?

Well, readers, what do you think?

THE END.

Alice Part 9

XI.

Once inside, she saw she was in a wide entrance hall that seemed to belong to an old gothic mansion, and was certainly not the right dimensions for a narrow circular tower. The floor was tiled in black and white squares like a chessboard, but their edges seemed to be blurred; in fact, the whole room seemed to be shifting and moving and seemed never to stay still. The heavy chandelier that hung from the ceiling swung from side to side. It was like being on a ship at sea or in one of those fairground fun houses. Alice walked unsteadily across the hall.

The Cheshire Cat appeared in mid-air before her.

“Welcome to the Fun-House,” he said.

“What’s going on in here?!” asked Alice.

“Oh, you’ll find many of the Inventor’s half-formed ideas and dreams live here. They haven’t all quite taken shape yet, as you can see.”

Alice walked past some odd-looking contraptions that looked vaguely familiar, though she couldn’t quite place them. Though there were some distinctive objects too: she walked past bookshelves and a small table where a game of chess lay abandoned. Alice noted that a white pawn had nearly made it to the other side of the board.

“Watch out!” said the Cheshire Cat. Alice ducked as a grand piano went sailing over her head.

Then she looked around for the Cheshire Cat, but he had gone again.

“Whose dream is this?” thought Alice, not for the first, second, or even thirty-third time that day (if, indeed, this was a ‘day’ she was in).

Ahead of her was a spiral staircase, but instead of the steps being stationary they moved upwards like an escalator. Alice got on and held on to the handrail tight.

The upper floor was a white, circular hallway with four narrow corridors leading off from it. In front of one of the corridors stood a little girl with dark hair in a white dress. It seemed as though she had been waiting for Alice. The most curious thing was the girl was all black and white like an old photograph, and her dress was old-fashioned and lacy with a high collar; it looked Victorian.

The girl didn’t speak to Alice but looked at her for a moment with her dark eyes, then silently turned and walked down the corridor behind her. Alice followed, presuming her to be some sort of guide. The girl turned a corner, and when Alice had followed her around, she had disappeared.

Ahead of Alice was a long, white corridor, seemingly without end, with doors lining the walls on each side. Alice started walking down the corridor, and as she passed the doors, some opened, and things came out.

Out of one a great quantity of unusual insects came flying. Some of them looked like rocking-horses with wings:

“A rocking-horse fly!” said Alice.

Another kind looked as though it were made out of thin crusts of bread, with a glob of butter for a head.

“A bread-and-butterfly?” guessed Alice.

And then there was another which she wasn’t sure about: it had holly leaves for wings and a burning raisin for a head. What could they be? Such curious things they were!

Out of another door burst Humpty Dumpty, who was no longer covered in bandages but whose shell was shining and whole again.

“I’m healed!” he cried ecstatically, racing past Alice. “I’m new! I’m whole! I’m born again! I’m –” And here there was a great crash.

Poor Humpty Dumpty – he must have fallen down the stairs. Alice turned to go back to him but found the corridor came to a dead-end right behind her! Curiouser and curiouser! She turned and walked back down the corridor a little way and then looked back – the dead-end was again right behind her, as if she’d gone no distance at all. She kept walking then, afraid the wall would catch up with her, and all the while doors kept opening and strange things kept coming out.

Out of one some goldfish came swimming, through the air. A couple of them looked like her goldfish.

“Argyll! Olly! What are you doing out of your tank?” They both swam around and around her, opening and shutting their mouths, looking quite pleased with themselves, as far as goldfish are able to. Then they swam off through another open doorway. A creepy clown peered out at her through the next one, and Alice quickly moved on. Suddenly the Mad Hatter came running down the corridor towards her.

“ALICE!” he cried. “I’M AFRAID THIS IS ALL TOO MUCH FOR YOU! YOU MUST HAVE SOME TEAAAAA!!!”

“I’M OKAY!!!” said Alice, batting him off. “REALLY, I’M FINE!!!!” She had no idea why they were speaking in capital letters, or why they were using so many exclamation marks. She must really be going around the bend….

She shut her eyes tight and then opened them again. The Hatter was gone, and now she was standing in a plain circular room, with a lightbulb pointing up from the floor.

Alice looked up. There was an old-fashioned leather sofa and a coffee table on the ceiling. It looked like the room was the wrong way up…

The voice of the Cheshire Cat chuckled, and said,

“Why don’t you take a seat?”

The room flipped upside-down, and Alice landed in a heap on the sofa.

The Cheshire Cat materialised, curled up on the coffee table.

“How long will you keep this up for?” asked Alice.

“Keep what up? It has nothing to do with me.”

“Well, when will this madness end?”

“You must find the Inventor.”

“You mean Lewis Carroll?”

“I mean what I say.”

How do I find him?”

“The only way is up.”

And the Cheshire Cat disappeared again.

“I wish he’d stop doing that,” said Alice.

Alice rose from the sofa and walked towards the door. She needed to find more stairs, she guessed, and she had the curious feeling that she was running out of time…

Behind the door was another corridor that seemed to go on forever. She ran and ran, but there was no end in sight.

“You’ll never get anywhere like this,” said the voice of the Cheshire Cat, from the air around her.

“Up, I need to go up!” said Alice frantically to herself. And as she said it, somewhere a giant clock began ticking; she heard it, coming from above. What was she going to do? She wished the White Knight was here. She was lost. She squeezed her eyes shut, hoping that when she opened them, she’d be somewhere else. Her feet left the floor, and she began moving, floating upwards…

She opened her eyes to see she was flying towards a beautiful bright light… it was heavenly.

“I’m going up!” thought Alice joyfully.

And so she was. She travelled at lightning speed. The wind rushed through her hair. It was like flying on the Gryphon, except there was nothing supporting her – and then she became afraid; what if she fell?

Her progress began to halt –

“Don’t stop Alice, you’re nearly there!” said the Cheshire Cat, beside her. And he was positively beaming with encouragement.

Alice began to move upwards again more rapidly. Up and up, and then, before she knew it, she had come to rest on a small landing. On the landing was a door. And on the door was a gold plaque which read, in formal lettering:

LEWIS CARROLL

Alice Part 8

X.

As the train gathered speed, Alice took a closer look at the other passengers on board. It was ‘standing room only’ in the most literal sense, as there were no seats, and many of the animals were not well-adapted to sit in seats anyway. There were squirrels, dormice, rabbits, oysters, hedgehogs, frogs, various birds and even an alpaca. The train was gathering speed rapidly now and Alice looked on in some alarm as some of the smaller animals began to roll towards the back.

“Eek!” said a squirrel, as it tried to cling to the hem of Alice’s trousers. They were going really fast. Alice looked out the window to find she could no longer see the ocean, just a racing blur of technicolour. Were they going faster than light? Alice began to tumble towards the back too, and suddenly felt she didn’t want to be on this train anymore; she was scared. Why couldn’t she have stayed on the beach, collecting shells?

“Ow!” she said, as she hit the back of the carriage, and dislodged a disgruntled hedgehog from behind her.

“Watch where you’ve flying!” said the hedgehog.

It was pandemonium: animals were piled up at the back of the train, all bickering with one another. Many of the birds had tried flying to keep up with the speed, but it was too fast for them, and they too were hurled towards the back; a large seagull was draped over the eyes of the alpaca, which was in turn draped across Alice and the other animals.

“I wonder were the gnat is?” said Alice.

“I’m right here,” said the tiny voice by Alice’s ear, and Alice fought the urge to swat at it.

“This is quite a way to travel, isn’t it?” said the gnat.

“Indeed!” said Alice. She was so vexed she could say nothing else.

“Trains have really gone downhill if you ask me!” said the hedgehog.

“No-one was asking you!” said the squirrel.

“Now, now, don’t bicker,” hooted an owl, who was spread in a most unbecoming way against the back of the carriage.

“Where are we going?” said Alice.

“To the White Tower, of course!” the animals all squeaked, hooted and chirped in reply.

“But why?” said Alice.

“Because we want to go, stupid,” said the hedgehog. “Why else would we be here?”

Alice thought he was only grumpy because she’d squashed him slightly. She wondered when this terrible train journey would end.

The Cheshire Cat materialised then, in mid-air in front of Alice.

“Having fun?” he asked.

“Not really,” said Alice. “What is the point of this?”

“The train is a great metaphor for life, don’t you think?” said the Cheshire Cat. “It can be rather a bumpy ride.”

“This isn’t funny!” said Alice.

“That depends on your view,” said the Cheshire Cat. “I like to view things a different way.” And here he flipped over onto his back in mid-air and grinned at Alice, upside down.

“Who are you? And why are you different to all the other animals?”

“I’m a cat,” he said simply. “And don’t expect me to tell you my secrets, for we cats revel in mystery. But I am not the mystery you must solve. In this case, I am simply the messenger.”

“So, you’re not the one who’s behind all this?”

“Oh no – I’m a cat. I may know things humans don’t, but I’m no inventor. I think there’s someone you should meet. You’ll find him in the White Tower. Right at the very top, if you can find it.”

And he disappeared.

Eventually the train began to slow down, and it finally came to a stop at the bottom of a hill. Alice and all the animals unfurled themselves, grumbling, from the back of the train, and got off. Alice looked up at the hill. The White Tower stood on top of it, gleaming in the sunlight. She looked around as a flamingo pushed past and saw that all the animals and birds were heading off in another direction.

“Where are you going?” she called after them.

“To the Visitor’s Centre and Cafe,” they replied in unison. Alice shook her head and started walking up the hill.

“Goodbye,” said the tiny voice in her ear.

Alice reached the top in time to see the Cheshire Cat’s tail disappear through a half-open door at the foot of the tower. A biting wind came from nowhere and the door blew shut. Some butterflies flew past that were the colour of autumn leaves.

Alice walked up to the tower and stopped outside the small wooden door, which was painted a peeling blue.

She’d been wanting to come here for so long…

She took a deep breath and turned the handle.