Headbutts, body slams and injustice: How a terrifying goat inspired Sophie Wills' new book

Published on: 27 October 2020 Author: Sophie Wills

When Sophie Wills was writing her new book The Orphans of St Halibut's, she couldn't help including a terrifying goat - based on her own experiences!

Here, she tells us how her experiences with Pamela as a teenager inspired the book (and why the goat might have had the last laugh)...

Sophie Wills and the front cover of The Orphans of St Halibut's

When I was writing The Orphans of St Halibut's, a few elements from my real life crept in. There's nothing unusual about that, of course - every writer gets inspiration from their past, reimagining events, harvesting traits from people they love, and pettily using the names of school bullies for characters who suffer excruciating deaths (... so I hear).

Early on in the process, my dad had already made an appearance in the way Arfur spoke in the book, and I could see aspects of my children in some of the characters. It was actually lovely. Comforting. Helpful, even. It warmed the cockles of my heart.

Then a goat called Pamela turned up at St Halibut's, and all of a sudden it wasn't cute anymore. Because she wasn't just any goat.

She was my nemesis.

Trying to get on Pamela's good side

I met Pamela 30 years ago, when I was 14 and had started work at a boarding kennels. I'd thought, until then, that I was good with animals. In books and movies, pets always just 'know' whether someone is decent, or a scoundrel. Fido is barking and whining at those friendly new neighbours? That's because they're secretly aliens, scouting ahead of an invasion. Creatures have a sixth sense, don't they?

So when Pamela took against me, I was a little offended. I'm nice, you see. Also human (always have been). I'm fairly honest, I don't steal (you can't prove it was your chocolate), I don't murder people, and I've never tried to hack into the Ministry of Defence for nuclear codes I can sell to a shady international cabal.

As well as the dogs and cats they boarded, the owners of the kennels (let's call them Mr and Mrs X) kept other animals, including a flock of permanently furious geese. If you said boo to these geese, they'd peck your tongue out before you could close your mouth.

Every evening, Mr and Mrs X took great pleasure in drinking sherry on the patio while watching me try to herd the spitting, hissing, feathery mob into their shed, which could only be reached through comedically placed slippery, ankle-deep mud.

And then there was Pamela.

The first time I went into Pamela's stall with an armful of hay, she just stared at me. If it's true that eyes are the windows of the soul, looking into a goat's is like being thrown through the French doors. Think Eye of Sauron turned 90 degrees, but less inviting. She stood quietly, telepathically fusing my brain synapses while I put the hay in her wire basket.

I said a cheery hello, and was treated to a contemptuous fart in reply.

The second time, I felt her nudge my backside a little - softly, like it might have been a clumsy, affectionate gesture. The third time, she body-slammed me, but made it look like an accident. The fourth time... before I even came near, all the hairs had gone up in a ridge along her spine, and she was doing little fake charges in my direction. She wasn't - and I make no apology for saying this - kidding.

But I was clueless, and went in anyway. Pamela's horns had been removed long ago; nevertheless, her headbutt was hard enough to send me sprawling into the middle of the corridor.

After that, I tried offering carrots, her favourite treat, but they didn't persuade her to like me. I tried talking in a baby voice - the other goats seemed to enjoy that - but, if anything, it made Pamela despise me more.

Soon enough, I was too scared to even go into her stall. I developed a finely honed Indiana Jones-style technique of placing a carrot on one wall, then racing round and leaning over the opposite wall to throw her hay into the basket at the back before she could whip round and grab my sleeve with her teeth.

Pamela tolerated only one of the kennel assistants. Barb (not her real name) was a strapping, no-nonsense 20-year-old who used to snap planks over her knee for fun, owned a Doberman with whom she wrestled, and had earned Pamela's grudging respect. I'm not sure how; maybe there was some kind of headbutting contest before I arrived. I was a scrawny, shy, terrified teenager who just wanted to be loved.

But Pamela never did love me. She hated me right up to my final day there, years later.

Seeing Pamela's point of view

Now that she's dead (at least, I assume so *looks around nervously*), I think I get it. She had every right to be angry: she rarely got to go outside, and Mr and Mrs X treated her as nothing more than a milk store.

A victim of injustice, she had no one else to take it out on and, frankly, she found me annoying.

In my book, as in life, Pamela doesn't care what people think of her, and she dares them to make something of it. The children buy her as a convenience, but she isn't - she's a living creature with her own agenda, as they quickly discover. As I wrote her, I found myself, at last, grudgingly admiring her.

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe it's that you can't be liked by everyone, no matter how hard you try. I was just never going to be her cup of tea. Or rather, her carrot.

And writing her in to my book - without changing so much as her name - was a sort of therapy. Surviving and moving on is the mature response. Besides, I got away from Mr and Mrs X in the end – she wasn't so lucky.

On the other hand, Pamela forced her way into my previously goat-free story just like she barged me in her stall. She even made me give her horns back. She landed herself a major role, and features heavily in the sequel, despite my carefully laid plans.

So perhaps she's having the last laugh, after all.

The Orphans of St Halibut's by Sophie Wills is out now.

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