Where does crime writer Anna Penrose get her ideas from? (and a little rant from me!)

I always enjoy it when I find a new to me author and when that author is in my own genre, that makes me even happier.  I recently discovered Anna Penrose’s murder mystery, The Body in the Wall which I enjoyed very much indeed.

Me

Welcome to my blog, Anna, and thank you for agreeing to answer my questions.  Let’s open with the one I always start with – and the one all writers are said to dread –  where do you get your ideas from?

Anna 

Ideas are everywhere. I’m always daydreaming and roleplaying scenarios and some of those mind scribbles make it into whole stories. For The Body in the Wall I wanted to write a murder mystery but I wanted it to be engage the reader rather than terrify them. 

I love psychological thrillers, but I wanted to spend time getting to know a location and a cast of characters over a period of time. I also wanted to write something positive. If you can class a whodunnit that way. By the same token I wasn’t interested in writing something funny or cute. I just wanted a good old fashioned, murder mystery, in a modern-day setting.

Me

You have certainly succeeded. Congratulations. The location is a delight and so beautifully drawn it makes me want to visit Cornwall again.  I’m delighted to discover that the book is the first in a series.  Which came first, the idea for the story or the setting? 

Anna

I started this book with a character and a location. Then I needed a plot and realised I had loads. It felt inevitable to me that it would be a series but only if readers enjoyed it. So far, so good. My only problem is that soon this area of Cornwall will be awash with dead bodies. 

Me

Books with a Cornish setting are always very popular.  Did this have an influence  on your choice of setting?

Anna.

They say write what you know and as I own a bookshop in a Cornish fishing village, I thought it would be a great location to place a whodunnit. I love reading crime books especially the ones where the location is a character.

So when I decided to write a crime novel it felt obvious that I was going to choose a location that I knew inside out. It was going to be Norfolk or Cornwall, I picked Cornwall as I have other plans for Norfolk.

Having worked out the location, I wanted a character that I would like to spend time with. Writing a book is a solitary task so you may as well enjoy the company of your made-up friends and Malachite (she’s the main character) was a hoot. I was definitely inspired by Joanna Lumley, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench.  I don’t know how she comes across to readers, but I hope no one sees her as a little old lady, she is no Miss Marple.

I wanted a character with bite and an interesting background. That meant I needed her to have lived a varied life and of course the older a character the more interesting things I can tuck away in their past.

Me.

I absolutely loved Malachite.  She’s a great character and certainly is no little old lady. (*see rant below) The gradual revealing of her intriguing past makes the story zip along at a fair pace. 

Although this is your first crime novel, this is by no means your first novel as you have a very successful series under the name Liz Hurley.  What made you switch genres? And is  the change going to be a permanent one?

Anna

I find it very difficult to stay focussed so jumping between projects is something I do all the time. It means that whatever I am working on feels fresh and exciting to me. I write in several genres as well as writing walking guides, so it just feels natural to switch between genres. 

For me, it’s about telling a story, then I need to work out where to place it, crime, romance, historical, science fiction.

Me.

Tell us a little more about your murder mysteries. 

Anna

The Golden Murders are a modern day murder mystery series. There’s no psychological drama, or violent torture, just a good old puzzle to solve and some deaths along the way. The Body in the Wall is the first in what I hope will be a long running series, I have lots of plots and will only stop when the readers get bored or I run out of ideas.

The story starts with a woman in her sixties moving to Cornwall. She has a past that marks her as different and possibly the worst person to get involved in a police investigation. However, when the renovations begin in her bookshop and a body is found, she soon becomes a person of interest. 

I won’t say anymore but it all revolves around a very close-knit fishing community and her efforts not to get involved.

Me.

I’m delighted to hear you plan more in this series and can’t wait for the next one.  What inspires you most in your writing? Is it characters? Settings? Maybe even books you have read?

Anna

Inspirations comes normally from things I have read or places I have visited. I know a story is on the way when I start to hear a character talking in my head. From there I have to decide if I’m listening to the mumbling ravings of a half-wit or if I have a whole book on my hands.

Me.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who has characters chattering away inside my head. Tell us a bit about your writing journey. How did it start?

Anna

I try relentlessly to keep a diary but the tedium of daily life knocks the urge out of me.  I’ve always kept a travel journal though, but that makes sense, travel is about exploration and reflection.

My first published piece was for a lifestyle column for my local newspaper about a decade ago. I wrote it every week for two years and then noticed that it was becoming cyclical and stopped. If I was bored I was sure others would be as well. There’s only so many times you can complain about traffic on the A30.

Me

As I said earlier, you have a very successful series of novels under your Liz Hurley name.  What made you change genres?

Anna

Boredom is an issue of mine, or not boredom as much as the inability to focus on something. It just works better for me if I can jump between things, and so many things interests me that writing in a different genre feels natural.  I have a few other stories in other genres just biding their time. Well, not biding as much as screaming for attention, but I need to focus on my current projects. I write in four genres currently and that’s enough to be going on with!

Me.

It certainly is.  Thank you so much, Anna/Liz for such a fascinating interview and for a great read.  I look forward very much to meeting Malachite and friends again.

*Afterthought.  If you read the interview I did with Anna in Writers’ Forum, there was a bit of editorial interference that has left me very uncomfortable.  I usually let them go as once the article is in print there is nothing I can do about. But this is one I feel quite strongly about.  I would never, ever use the expression ‘old maid’ which is what appeared in the magazine. For one reason, it is very dated and for another, I find it very distasteful.

Rant over and thank you for reading this far!

Social Media Links, blog, website etc.

www.annapenrose.co.uk

www.lizhurleywrites.com

Buy Here:

The Body in the Wall 

The Hiverton Sisters series

Short Story. The Butterfly Effect

In my Idea Store column in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I’m talking about The Butterfly Effect, which is (in an over-simplified form) how something that seems small and inconsequential at the time can sometimes have huge and unforeseen consequences.

Here, as promised in the article is my short story, The Butterfly Effect, which I wrote on the same theme.

And if you want to find out what Robert Crouch’s unforeseen consequences were and you can’t get hold of a copy of Writers’ Forum, you can find the answer here on his website.  

Link here.  https://robertcrouch.co.uk/the-blog-that-changed-my-writing-life

The Butterfly Effect

Abbie stood on the bridge, watching a newly hatched butterfly dry its wings in the late spring sunshine. What was it her science teacher had said, all those years ago? How a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia could cause an earthquake in India? 

It hadn’t made sense at the time.  But it did now. What Mr Everett had been trying to say, she reckoned,  was how the smallest, seemingly insignificant action could have gigantic, unforeseen consequences.

She looked down at the mobile phone – the small, insignificant thing – that Matt had left on her kitchen table last night. 

‘What do you think of that, Bryn?’ she’d asked the dog who was never far from her side as she picked it up.  ‘Last night Matt’s telling me he’s got this important meeting which is why he can’t see me today.  Yet I come down this morning and find he’s left this behind , the one piece of kit he says he can’t do without. Just as well for him I’m not working today.  With luck, I’ll catch him before he leaves.’

It was one of the regrets Abbie had about her 18-month relationship with Matt that he and Bryn didn’t get on.  Matt thought Bryn was spoilt rotten, badly behaved and should stay in the utility room.  Bryn thought Matt was spoilt rotten, badly behaved and should stay away from Abbie.

Matt’s car was still outside his house when Abbie pulled up.  She  was about to get out of her car when Matt’s front door opened. She froze as she watched him turn to the leggy blonde by his side and give her a long lingering kiss.  

It was Carly.  Abbie’s so-called best friend. 

Abbie started the car, hoping they hadn’t seen her.  She wasn’t ready to confront them yet and needed to hang on to her control, at least until she’d got her head straight.  She drove back across the moor, where she stopped by North Point bridge, watched the butterfly make its first hesitant flight, then dropped Matt’s phone into the river.

As the weed encrusted water closed over it, she looked out across the flat moorland landscape she’d known and loved all her life and felt a desperate loneliness. Suppose she followed Matt’s phone into that thick green water?  Would anyone miss her? Apart from Bryn, of course.

As she peered down at the river, the butterfly, its maiden flight completed, landed back on the stone bridge beside her and gently flapped its wings. 

………………………..

Greg Marchant cursed as the narrow road took yet another right-angled turn.  He should have stayed on the main road and waited for the accident to be cleared.  What sort of idiot turns off along an unmarked country road in an area he doesn’t know?

The sort who’s running late for a job interview because of an earlier road closure and whose pretty good sense of direction has never let him down – until now.

The willow-fringed road, bounded on both sides by sheer drops into ditches big enough to engulf his car, got narrower the further along it he went, taking him ever deeper into the flat, featureless moorland.  

He was running out of time.  Best stop in a minute and phone to ask if the interview could be rescheduled. Or say sorry but he’d changed his mind.

When he’d applied, he’d had misgivings about burying himself in the countryside – and that was before seeing it for himself.  If you’re going to live in the country, it should at least be scenic, maybe a few rugged hills and wooded valleys.  Not mile after mile of featureless moorland.

He was looking for somewhere to turn around when he saw a small yellow car  parked alongside a stone bridge. A young woman with glorious copper coloured hair stood there, obviously deep in thought.

‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Can you help me, please?  I think I’m lost.’

Greg thought she had the saddest – but loveliest – eyes he’d ever seen.  They were the colour of the cluster of violets that peeped up at him from the nearby bank.

‘Where are you heading for?’ she asked.

‘Neston Parva.  I was on the main road but there was an accident ahead and the road was closed, so I thought I’d take a short cut.’

The girl laughed, banishing the sadness, if only for a moment.  

‘I’ll say you’re lost.’ Her voice was as soft as Pan pipes.  ‘Did you turn off just after a pub with a big cedar tree in the garden?’

‘That’s it.  Did you get caught, too?’

She shook her head and Greg was fascinated by the way her hair colour changed from copper to deep auburn as it moved. 

‘The road wouldn’t have been closed by an accident,’ she said, ‘But by George Fairweather’s cows going in for milking.  They’ll be well gone now.  Best you turn round, take the first left, second right, then when you come to the fork by the burnt down barn….’ 

But Greg had lost concentration after the first – or was it the second? – turning.  All he could think of was the tiny dimple that appeared in her cheek when she smiled.

‘Sorry.’  He forced himself to concentrate.  ‘I’m ..not .. quite myself.  A bit nervous.  I’m on my way to a job interview only I’m late and…’

‘An interview in Neston Parva?’  the girl smiled again and this time, to Greg’s delight, revealed dimples on both sides of her face, ‘That’s where I live. I’m on my way there now, so why don’t you follow me?  What time’s your interview?’

‘Nine thirty.  But I don’t think I’ll make it.’

‘Course you will.  I know these lanes like the back of my hand. I’ve lived around here all my life.’

‘You have?’ Greg looked around him at the landscape that ten minutes earlier he’d dismissed as dull and bleak.  ‘Lucky you.  It’s beautiful.’

‘Isn’t it ever? I was just thinking the same myself.  I was going to leave, you know and move into the town but –’ She shrugged and Greg saw her eyes were sad again.  ‘Well, things didn’t work out.  Still,’ she gave him a wobbly smile, ‘This won’t get you to that interview, will it? Come on.’

‘That’s very kind. Thanks.’

‘That’s ok. I hope you get the job.’

As Greg waited for her little yellow car to pull out in front of him, he realised he wanted the job in Neston Parva more than he’d wanted anything for a long time and that the black cloud he’d been living under since his divorce was at last beginning to lift.

And as the two cars drove off, the butterfly flapped its wings and flew away.

………………………………

‘I’m coming,’ Abbie called as she hurried down the hall. ‘No need to knock the door down – Oh.  It’s you.’

Matt stood on her doorstep, his face as dark as the rainstorm that had suddenly turned day into night. 

‘Let me in, Abbie. I’m getting soaked.’

‘Too bad.’  Abbie went to close the door, but Matt put his foot out to stop her. 

‘I just want to talk to you,’ he said, ‘I’ve been trying to do so for the last three weeks.  Where have you been?  Why aren’t you answering your phone?’

‘If it was any of your business, which it’s not,  I’d tell you I’ve been staying with my sister, who’s just had her baby.  As you’d know if you’d ever listened to a word I said.’

‘Of course I do –’

‘And I didn’t answer my phone because I saw it was you calling and, as I’ve already said, I don’t want to speak to you or Carly ever again.’

‘That thing with Carly was nothing, honest.  Open the door, please.’

‘No.  Go away .’

‘I’m coming in,’ he snapped.  ‘And you’re damn well going to listen to me.’

Abbie pushed hard against the door but it was hopeless.  As Matt forced it open, she heard a low growl and before she could stop him, Bryn barrelled his way through the gap and leapt at Matt, catching him by the sleeve. 

There was a tearing noise and a volley of curses from Matt.

‘Look what he’s done.’  Matt was fanatical about his clothes.  ‘This jacket cost over £200 and that stupid, hairy waste of space has ruined it.’

Before Abbie realised his intention, Matt drew his foot back and landed Bryn a savage kick in the ribs.  The dog yelped then bolted for the open gate.

‘Bryn. No.’ Abbie’s scream was lost in a squeal of brakes and another yelp from Bryn, cut horribly short.  She rushed out.  A car was slewed across the road, the driver white and shaken.

‘I didn’t see him,’ he said.  ‘He came out of nowhere and with the road being so wet… I’m sorry.  So very, very sorry.’

Abbie looked down at the dog who’d shared her life these last five years.  He’d always been a harum-scarum dog, full of life and energy.  Now, he lay still in the road, his eyes closed, a small line of blood trickling from the corner of his  mouth.  He’d never chase rabbits, autumn leaves or plastic bags ever again.

‘Oh, baby.  Poor, poor baby.’  Abbie leaned across to gather his lifeless body into her arms . 

‘Don’t.’  The shout from behind shocked her into stillness.  ‘Don’t move him.’

Abbie looked up as a man she vaguely recognised pushed her gently aside and knelt down beside Bryn.

The next couple of hours passed in a haze.  All she could think of was that Bryn, her beloved, stupid, idiotic, disobedient Bryn whom she’d thought was dead, was being operated on for internal injuries and she could only wait –  and pray.

‘Bryn’s in good hands Abbie.’ Janey, the receptionist handed her yet another cup of tea. ‘The new vet’s very good.  Here, drink it this time and try not to worry.’

But Abbie didn’t drink the tea because at that moment, the vet came out.  She jumped anxiously to her feet, trying to read the expression on his face.

‘Bryn? Is he -?’

‘He’s going to be fine.  Stiff and sore for a few days, but he’ll make a full recovery, I promise.  He’s one lucky dog.’

It was only then that Abbie let go the tears she’d been holding in for so long go.  She’d have fallen had the vet not caught her and helped her to a chair.

‘I’m sorry,’ she hiccupped.  ‘B-bursting into tears when I should be thanking you for saving my dog’s life.’  She stopped as she realised why he’d seemed familiar.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?  The man who got lost on the moor?’

‘It is indeed.  My name’s Greg and, as you can see, I got the job, thanks to you.’

‘I’m so glad you did.  If you hadn’t come along at the very moment Bryn rushed out into the road …’

Greg looked down at his hands.  ‘I wasn’t exactly just passing,’  he said.  ‘I arm-locked poor Janey into telling me where you lived and I’ve been walking up and down that road every day for the last few weeks.  I even managed to find that bridge again where I first saw you.’

‘But why?’ 

‘I wanted to thank you.  If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have turned around and withdrawn my application.’

‘And if you hadn’t got the job and been there when Bryn was knocked down, he’d have died.’

‘A bit like dominoes, then,’ Greg said.  ‘One thing leading to another.’

Or butterflies flapping their wings, Abbie thought as, for the first time she noticed that Greg had nice brown eyes, a warm friendly smile – and no wedding ring.

‘About Bryn,’ Greg said.  ‘It’s best he stays in overnight. You can collect him in the morning.  On one condition.’

‘Yes?’

‘That you promise not to spend this evening worrying about him.’

‘I can’t promise that,’ Abbie laughed.  ‘But I’ll try.’

‘Then how about having dinner with me – to take your mind off it? And give us the chance to say our respective thank yous again.  Janey tells me there’s a very good restaurant in the next village.’

Before she could say yes, he reached across and touched her hair lightly.  ‘Don’t move,’ he said softly.  ‘There’s a butterfly in your hair.  It must have come in here when it rained.’

He opened the window behind her.  Slowly, the butterfly stretched its wings, circled around their heads and then flew out through the open window.

The end                

An interview with crime author Val Penny

I am delighted to welcome author Val Penny back to my blog this week.  I first met Val when I joined the community of Crooked Cat authors (now Darkstroke) back in 2018.  (And I first interviewed her for my blog here.)

Crooked Cat/Darkstroke was (and still is) a great community of supportive and knowledgeable authors and I learnt so much from all of them, but Val was particularly helpful.  She has a wealth of knowledge, experience and sheer common sense and has been an inspiration and support throughout my time with Darkstroke.  (She also writes really good crime stories!)

I was very sad when I learned she was changing publishers and asked if she would like to come on to my blog and talk about it.  It is, after all, a very big step for an author to take.

So, welcome back Val.

Val

Thank you so much for inviting me along today, Paula. It is good to be able to sit and chat with you today

Me

I know authors often change publishers. I’m curious what might the reasons be for this?

Val

Each publisher offers something different to their authors but what the authors want, and need will change over time. Therefore, it is not unusual for authors to move from one publisher to another. This may be because the writer has chosen to write a book in a different genre not supported by their original publisher or simply that their support or distribution requirements change over time.

Me

What led to you wanting to change publishers?

Val

When I moved publishers, I had been with Crooked Cat and their crime imprint darkstroke for about seven years. The directors there work hard to develop a feeling of community amongst their authors and run in-house courses about, for example, editing, Amazon algorithms, or how to use social media. For a new author this tuition and information is gold-dust. As a new author I was very lucky to have been nurtured in this environment. 

However, after that period of time and with seven fiction titles under my belt, my professional needs began to change.

Me

How did you start the process?

Val

I began the process of moving publishers at the beginning of this year. It is a stressful thing to do. A bit like moving house, you know when you must do it and that the ultimate benefits will outweigh the temporary anxiety, but that does not take the anxiety away.

Darkstroke had begun to accept mainly first-time authors who needed a great deal of support, and a different kind of support to that I required going forward. The in-house courses the company offered were all familiar to me and it became clear that a move to a different publisher was called for.

Me

 One of the big issues when leaving a publisher is rights reversion. How did you get about getting your rights back from the publisher?

Val

Here, I firmly believe communication is the key. Most of my books were out of contract with darkstroke. They still published the first five books by agreement and, as I had been one of darkstroke’s best selling authors for the past five years, I thought the best thing to do was to speak to them and explain my dilemma. We quickly reached an amicable agreement about reversion of rights which required me to remain with them for a further three months and then the company agreed to a reversion of all my rights at no cost to me. 

This is unusual, a charge is often required, but in this case, a calm discussion about the need for a move was useful. This is a small industry, and it is sensible to remember that bad news or word that you are difficult to deal with travels fast. 

My grandmother always used to say, courtesy costs nothing. That is as true now as it was then.

Me

Once you have done that, it is then necessary to find a new publisher. How did you go about finding a new publisher?

Val

This is truly the most stressful part of the process!

I was fortunate in that when it became known that I was looking for a move with the rights to my whole back catalogue and various ideas for new books, several publishers expressed interest in signing me. I also investigated the possibility of setting up my own publishing house but, when I struck a deal with SpellBound Books, I was aware I could not replicate the expertise and vision of that company on my own. 

I am excited to be part of the SpellBound Books family now.

Me

 I know you don’t use an agent and prefer to approach publishers yourself. Why this choice?

Val

I have, briefly, had agents twice in the past and I am sure that if an author secures the services of a good agent who actively supports them and promotes their books this can be advantageous. However, my first agent had the audacity to get pregnant and leave the business without a thought for her authors. The next was more interested in promoting herself than working on my behalf.

I then spoke at length to a friend who worked as an agent with a large company for many years before changing careers and her view was that I didn’t need an agent. I have never had a problem getting publishers to accept my work, even when I was an unknown author. Her view was that I would just be paying an agent a percentage of my income to no good end. So, for the meantime, I will continue to work without an agent.

Me

Please tell us about your books

Val

I have two police procedural crime series, The DI Hunter Wilson Thrillers set in Edinburgh and The Jane Renwick Thrillers set in Scotland. 

SpellBound Books published the first book, Hunter’s Chase on August 20 while Hunter’s Revenge will be available from November.

Me

Hooray!  I’m looking forward to that very much indeed.  

So, finally, where can my readers go to find out more about you and your books?

Val

The easiest place to find out about me and my books is on my website at www.valpenny.com

Me

Thank you so much for a fascinating interview, Val.  I wish you every success in the world with your new publishers – and you are hugely missed at Darkstroke. Our zoom meetings aren’t the same without you!

Author bio

Val Penny’s crime novels, starting with Hunter’s Chase form the bestselling series of DI Hunter Wilson Thrillers. They are set in Edinburgh, Scotland and published by SpellBound Books (link here) Her first non-fiction book Let’s Get Published is also available from Amazon.

Val is an American author living in SW Scotland with her husband and their cat.

Book link. Hunter’s Chase. link here

Short Story. King of the Divvy Up

Over the years I have written many short stories that have featured members of my family and I have excused myself for taking such liberties by saying that I never used their real names.  

Or so I thought.

A while back I was looking for something write about in my Idea Store column in issue 246 (August 2022) of Writers’ Forum and began by writing about a story I’d written just for the fun of it which was never intended for publication.  And I was so sure of that, I’d even used  my sister and brothers real names in the story as much of it was based on real events.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I was searching for the story and came across the published version of it!  

So this is by way of an apology to my siblings for using this (mostly) true family story.  And for slightly changing the ending into something I wish had happened.  

Dad would definitely have approved. 

The Divvy Up

by

Paula Williams

We all sat down for the last time at Mum’s battered old dining table.  Me, my sister and my four brothers.  Without even thinking about it, we took our usual places, the same places we’d sat at all through our childhood.

The two youngest (my twin brothers, Chris and Steve) on Mum’s left, the two eldest (my sister, Mary and oldest brother, Dave) on the opposite side to Mum and Dad and the two middle ones (me and my brother, Mike) on Dad’s right.

Like most families these days, we were scattered all over the place as we’d grown up and left home and, because there were so many of us, now that we had children of our own, we didn’t get the chance to get together very often, due to sheer weight of numbers.

But we’d come together, this one last time, in the house we’d grown up in to celebrate Dad’s birthday.

Mum’s place at the table had been empty for eighteen years.  She’d died way too young at the of 66 and it still hurt that she hadn’t been around to see many of her nineteen grandchildren grow up.  But, over the years we’d sort of got used to her empty chair.

But this year, Dad’s chair was empty.  And that was hard to deal with.  To know, too, that this was the last time we’d sit around this old, familiar table in our usual places.  The contents of the house was to be divided up among us and the house we’d all grown up in sold.

Mary had brought a cake.  Dad’s favourite chocolate sponge cake with butter cream icing, made exactly the way Mum used to make it, right down to the chocolate buttons that garlanded the top. Mary had made Dad the same cake on every birthday since Mum died. It had become yet one more family ritual, strictly observed.

“Don’t forget,” I called out as Mary stood, knife poised over the cake, ready to slice it up. “You cut, I choose.”

It was one of those family rules to ensure scrupulous fairness.  

My sister made a noise that was half laugh, half cry.  That day we’d all done an awful lot of that as we’d gone through the sometimes painful, but sometimes hilarious process of sorting through the family stuff, uncovering long forgotten mementoes of our childhood. Once again the old house echoed with cries of ‘That’s mine’ and ‘No, it isn’t. It’s mine.  You broke yours, remember?’ 

The years rolled away as we descended into our usual family pastime – squabbling over what belonged to whom.

“It’s a good job nobody brought the fruit salad,” Dave said, as we watched Mary dividing the cake into scrupulously equal portions.  We all laughed, relieved that one more potentially tearful moment was safely averted.

Mum used to say one of the good things about being one of a large family was that it taught you to share. Which just goes to show how little she knew.

From my experience of being one of the middle ones in a family of six children,  what you learn most of all is to be eagle-eyed, sharp elbowed – and quick off the mark.  Oh, and being devious wasn’t a bad thing either.

Mum’s relaxed attitude to the concept of ‘equal shares for all’ came from her being an only child.  She had no idea of the importance of complete fairness when it came to sharing things out.  

Dad, however, was the king of the divvy up.  He would share everything out with meticulous, scrupulous fairness, his tongue caught between his teeth as he concentrated on dividing whatever it was into eight absolutely equal portions.  

As he did so, he would be watched with intense interest by six pairs of eyes, only Mum thinking the whole thing was silly and she couldn’t be doing with all that nonsense.  

Which was, I suppose, why she would insist on buying tinned fruit salad for our Sunday treat, served, of course, with evaporated milk.  I have wondered since (for she had a wicked sense of humour)  whether in fact she did it quite deliberately to challenge him, thinking the assortment of tinned peaches, pineapples, pears and cherries would defeat him.

But she’d reckoned without the king of the divvy up.

We would all watch, as focussed as terriers at a rabbit hole, while Dad doled out chunks of  peaches, pineapple and pears into the eight waiting dishes, where there would be a certain amount of trading over the pears, peaches and pineapple.

But nobody wanted to trade the cherries, which were everyone’s favourite.  So Dad would quietly and patiently fish out the cherries and if there were only two in the tin, cut each one into four, one quarter segment for each dish.  But if there were three cherries, again he cut two into four but the third into eight minute pieces, something that stood me in good stead in school maths lessons when I struggled with fractions.

But this last time, Mary was the one wielding the knife.  She cut the cake and, on this one occasion only, we unbent the usual family rule and allowed her to choose the first slice.

“OK,” said Dave, when the last of the cake had been eaten.  “We’d better get down to it, don’t you think?  I told Sandra I’d be back by seven.”

We all looked at each other.  No one wanted to be the first.

“Well, I think it should be the football pitch,” Chris, one of the twins, said eventually.  “Dad loved his football.  Remember how he and Mum used to go every Saturday, shouting for their team so loudly, they’d come home hoarse?  It brought them so much pleasure, I’m sure that’s where he’d want his ashes scattered.”

“I think the place that meant the most to him were the woods behind our house,” Mary said.  “It’s where he used to walk dear old Jason.  He always loved it there.”

“You reckon?” said Dave.  “I think his favourite spot was Lyme Regis.  Remember when he had his boat?  The hours he’d spend pottering around, fishing for mackerel, tinkering with the engine when it went wrong?  He loved Lyme.  It was his favourite place.”

“Or what about the farm?” Steve said. “He loved the view from the top of Hilly Field.”

“And the river where he used to sit and watch for the kingfisher?” I said – and before we knew it, there we all were, back again at the old family pastime. Squabbling.  Each one absolutely convinced that we knew Dad’s favourite spot in the whole world.  Each one convinced we knew where his last resting place should be.

“Remember that little verse he used to trot out when we started arguing?” Mike, the brother who looks most like him, asked.  “Something about Little birds in their nests agree?”

Oh ’tis a painful sight to see,” Dave said.

Children of one family,” Mary and I chirped up in perfect unison.

Fall out and disagree.” We all chipped in, laughing.

“Seriously though,” Mary said, still in that same laughing and crying voice. “What are we going to do about Dad’s ashes? We can’t leave them on the shelf in his workshop, even though that was also one of his favourite spots.”

“He had so many favourite spots, didn’t he?” I said.  “Doesn’t that make him one lucky guy?  To have six children, still squabbling over who has Dad.  After Mum died, he was never one of those sad lonely old people whom nobody wanted, was he?  His problem was, we all wanted him – and look at us, we’re still squabbling over him now. What are we like?”

“I’ve got an idea,” Mike said.

He told us his idea – and after yet more arguing and squabbling, finally we all  agreed what to do with Dad.

So, Mike took the urn, got six empty jam jars from Mum’s jam cupboard – and picked up a spoon.

“Just remember, Mike,” I said, half laughing, half crying. “Family rules.  You cut, I choose.”

Then, with infinite patience and scrupulous fairness, Mike leaned across and, his tongue caught between his teeth as he concentrated, began to divvy up Dad, the King of the Divvy Up,  into six equal portions, while five pairs of eyes watched intently. 

ends

Where does crime writer David J Gatward get his ideas?

I am delighted to welcome David Gatward to my blog this week.  I recently featured him in my Idea Store column in Writers’ Forum and I was anxious to find out more about this author whose output has left me full of admiration, both for its quantity and quality.

I was first attracted to David’s books when I read that his current series of crime novels featured Wensleydale in the Yorkshire Dales, a part of the world I love as we had many happy family holidays there when my children were little.

In the past two years David has published TEN books in his excellent DCI Harry Grimm series and it opens with Harry Grimm arriving – very reluctantly – from Somerset to take up his new post in the area.  

Me.

Welcome to my blog, David and thank you for agreeing to be featured.  Thank you, too, for reminding me how very much I love the Yorkshire Dales and how it is high time I went back there.

I’m intrigued to know how you managed to produce such a great series in such a short time.

David.

Lockdown!

Me.

My brain froze during that time, at least to start with.  Obviously you are made of sterner stuff!

David

I was working in Suffolk but lived in Somerset, so I couldn’t actually get to work. Then I was put on furlough. So, I had time to play with. Various writer friends of mine (Barry Hutchison/JD Kirk, Alex Smith, Jonathan Mayhew) were doing the Amazon thing so I thought I’d give it a go.

Me

By the ‘Amazon thing’ I take it you mean publishing the books yourself? You certainly have some talented and successful writer friends to point you in the right direction.

David

My background was traditional publishing, children’s and teen fiction, and we knew each other through that world, even appearing at various events together. Anyway, I launched a horror trilogy, just to give it a go. Then, after a lot of ‘Do this, Dave! Do this!’ from Barry/Alex/Jon, I decided to give crime fiction a go. The nice thing was the challenge of it. Something new to learn. And it took my mind off what was going on with work, with lockdown.

Me

Where did the idea for the series come from?

David

The old adage of ‘write what you know’ came into play. I grew up in Wensleydale but lived in Somerset. So, I decided I’d have a detective from Somerset get sent up north. I’ve also ghost-written various military/action novels, so I gave him a military past. 

From that point, I did a bit of research on police procedure, read some crime books, and just got cracking. I started book 1 in May 2020 and launched it in July 2020. I didn’t think much would come of it. Turns out I was wrong!

Me

You certainly were! And I and many of your fans are delighted.  You’ve written ten books in the series so far. How do you keep coming up with ideas?

David

What I’ve done is try and base things on my own experience, the area itself, and wider ideas. 

For example, book 2, Best Served Cold, was based on a government safety film I remember us being shown in primary school called Apache. It’s all about farm safety and is terrifying! 

Book 5, Restless Dead, is based on a ghost story and haunted house I’d remembered from the area. Book 6, Death’s Requiem, came about due to chats with my celebrity pal, the rather wonderful Aled Jones! 

I’ve been helping him learn to write for a series of children’s books he’s doing called Bobby Dean, and we joked how it would be fun to kill him in my next book. So that’s what I did, and the book is dedicated to him as well. 

It’s fun coming up with new ideas and seeing what happens, plus I have the many lives of the characters now to keep going, which readers seem to love more than the actual crime stuff, particularly the dogs!

There’s also fun stuff, like the whole cheese-and-cake thing, which I put in simply as a little detail, but which has kind of blown up rather. 

There’s also the local flavour stuff as well. I like to make sure that geographically the books are fairly accurate and I have emails from readers who go on holiday now to the Dales to find places I’ve mentioned. 

Me

Ah yes, the cheese and cake thing. I’m afraid, soft southerner that I am, that’s something I’ve yet to be convinced about as I am not a great lover of Wensleydale cheese (sorry!) and I’ve been told it just wouldn’t work with good old Somerset cheddar.  

I’ll keep an open mind though. You certainly brought the place vividly to life for me and, I’m sure, for many of your readers.

David

Cockett’s Butchers in Hawes gets a lot of visitors who are readers heading in for food and to have a photo taken outside! Madness, really, but so much fun!

Me.

How would you describe your genre?

/

David

I’m writing crime fiction and I believe it’s called police procedural. This was a thing I knew nothing about when I started! So, there’s been a bit of research. It’s a series because I know that series do much better with readers than standalone books. 

I write as a living, not just because I love it, so building a series and a readership is key. The more books in the series, the better and easier it is to market and convince people to give it a go. Then, if they like the first couple of books, hopefully they’ll keep on reading.

Me.

And, hopefully, you’ll keep on writing the series.  What inspires you most?  Characters? Settings? Maybe even books you have read?

David

I don’t think anything inspires me the most really. I just enjoy writing and get cracking. Sometimes an idea will come from a character, something in their past, an action, or I’ll have an idea for a crime. Maybe a historical event or weird tradition will get me thinking. Sometimes I’ll be watching a film and an idea will pop into my head and I’ll have to write it down.

Me

How did your writing journey start?

David

I had my first book published when I was in the last few months of being eighteen. It was a book of prayers for teenagers, stuff I’d written from the age of sixteen. I did a year out, working at an outdoor centre (the one mentioned in book 3 of my Grimm series, Corpse Road, Marrick Priory, in Swaledale!). It was through an organisation where teenagers work across the country in various roles. 

At a volunteer training weekend, one of the other volunteers took what I’d written to show her dad. Turned out he was Kevin Mayhew, owner of Kevin Mayhew Publishers, and he sent me a contract. The book came out a few months after. It was hugely exciting. I wrote a couple more during university then went to work for him straight after. 

Between then and now I’ve done various publishing jobs, worked for the civil service, spent some months on a salmon farm in Scotland, written children’s fiction, worked as a ghost-writer, led hundreds of creative writing sessions in schools across the country and over in Ireland, and I actually ended up in the end as the managing director of Kevin Mayhew Publishers as my last job, so it was all very full circle. 

And now I write full time. It’s a mad world, really, so I try to not think about the journey too much because it makes my head hurt.

Me

Do you have any future plans?

David

The aim is to keep writing really. DCI Harry Grimm has a good number of adventures in him I believe. I’ve written just over five novels a year this past two years, but I’m dropping that to four from now on. This will allow me a little more time to think up and work on other ideas. 

I have one I’d like to do based in Somerset. I’ve also a few thriller ideas. It would be fun to see Grimm as a TV show and I’ve someone working on a treatment for that, though that’s something which I doubt will happen. Anyway, lots going on and I’m enjoying doing it.

Me

That’s awesome!  

And finally,  please tell us three things about you we might not know.

David

1. I’ve seen ghosts! The first one was while I was mowing the lawn at a large house when I was sixteen (pocket money work!) Middle of the day and there was a man in a black suit under a tree watching me. And then there wasn’t … The other was at Marrick Priory. I ‘lived’ in a static caravan on site. The place had a history of hauntings. I was woken in the night by a bright light and saw a woman in a corseted dress standing next to my bed. Very strange.

2. I love watching snooker and darts.

3. I had a drowning accident when I was six so I’m pretty terrified of water. I can swim, and I love being in the sea with my two boys, but that’s about as far as I’ll go with it. Though I am stupid enough to throw myself into daft activities just to show them how important it is to confront your fears. So, for example, on holiday in Scotland, we did white-water rafting and various other daft things, which involved throwing yourself into mad rapids to then pop up downstream, as well as jumping of 10-metre high bridges!

 Me.

You’ve been a fabulous guest.  Thank you for answering my questions so patiently.  Thank you, too, for the promise of many more DCI Grimm adventures to come.  I look forward to reading them.

Social Media Links, blog, website etc.

Website: www.davidjgatward.com

Twitter: @davidgatward

Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/davidjgatwardauthor

Facebook Harry Grimm Reader Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/373849887240040

The all important buy links.  

Grimm Up North (book 1 of the series): mybook.to/Grimm-Up-North

check out David’s Amazon author page for links to the other books in the series.

 Author bio

Biographies are strange things to write. What to include, what to leave out, wondering why anyone would really care that, for example, I had a drowning accident when I was six years old, or that I once dislocated my elbow because my dad encouraged me to jump off a rather high wall.

I could start at the beginning, perhaps. I was born in 1973 to a nurse and a trainee Methodist minister (they’re my parents, in case you’re wondering). We lived in the Cotswolds where the family grew to include two more boys and a golden labrador, though not necessarily in that order.

From the Cotswolds we then moved to Hawes in Wensleydale, a place of hills and moors, the deepest snow we’d ever known, and to us a strange love of things like cheese and cake and pie-and-pea suppers. Those were very happy days for us all and the memories I have of the place, the deep affection still, made it the natural place for me to set my DCI Harry Grimm crimes series.

After Wensleydale, we moved down to Lincolnshire, a place that makes up for the clear lack of hills with the most breath-taking skies. When I was eighteen, I then headed back up to the dales for a year to work at Marrick Priory, an outdoor education centre, then onto the Lake District, to study my degree in outdoor education.

Through all of this, I had a love of reading and of writing. I was the kid in English who’d write those really long stories, which probably didn’t make much sense, but certainly filled up the exercise books. I wrote for fun and was reminded of this by an old school friend, who told me how we used to set each other writing tasks to do during our free time.

Obviously, there were other interests beyond reading and books. I didn’t just spend my entire childhood in my bedroom hiding behind my own personal library. There was Cubs and Scouts and Boys Brigade, archery and fencing, walking, caving/potholing, climbing, shooting (air rifles and shotguns), camping.

My first book was published when I was eighteen. After graduating, I moved into publishing, did a wide range of jobs, published some more books, then somehow ended up working on a salmon farm in Scotland. When the company offered me a trainee management position, I promptly left and got a job as an editor. Somewhere along the way I became a dad, moved around a bit more, and started writing children’s and teen fiction, under my own name and also as a ghostwriter. I traveled around the country doing creative writing sessions in schools, won an award. Trying to make a living that way though isn’t exactly easy, so I then moved on to running a small publishing firm on the other side of the country. And then the pandemic hit.

Work changed considerably because of this so to help myself deal with it, I started writing again. And, listening to the advice of some good writing friends of mine (Barry Hutchison/JD Kirk, Jon/JE Mayhew, Alex Smith/Gordon Alexander Smith), I decided to try writing crime.

Life is a strange, wonderful, terrifying, exciting, frustrating, surprising thing. I’m doing now something I always dreamed of, through a mix of never giving up, listening to others, taking advice, hard work, and a fair amount of luck and good fortune. Do I have an idea of what’s around the corner? Of course not! But what I do know is that I’m having a lot of fun on the road.

Short story. Good at Saying Goodbye.

In the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am writing about how I got the idea for one of my short stories and promised that the story in question, Good at Saying Goodbye, would be on my blog.

So, here it is.  And if you have taken the trouble to come here after reading my Idea Store column, then thank you very much.

If not, then I hope you too will enjoy the short story, which came about after I got chatting to a lady in a supermarket car park. 

Good at Saying Goodbye

By

Paula Williams

“Well, what do you think?” Paul asked.

Maria looked up from her magazine, her warm glow from fantasising over Triple Chocolate Mousse with Black Cherry Compote fading abruptly at the sight of her husband.

He was dressed in walking boots and waterproofs, with a bobble hat at least three sizes too small (which, she supposed, one of the kids must have left behind) perched on top of his head like a big red pimple.  

And – this was what turned her warm glow to icy chill – he was holding her boots and waterproofs with the same self satisfied smirk the cat had when offering her a freshly caught mouse .

“Come on, love,” he said, in that bracing voice she’d come to dread.  “It’s a lovely day.  I thought we’d go up HenleyHill this morning and then have lunch out.  What do you say?”

‘No’ was the first word that came to her mind, followed swiftly by ‘way’. But she settled for: “It’s cold, windy and they’re forecasting rain.”

“But we’ve got waterproofs.  Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Fun?  Maria would have more fun filling in her tax return than struggling up those near vertical, scarily narrow paths that snaked up through the woods on Henley Hill, where partly exposed tree roots lurked ready to trip you up and bramble ropes swung menacingly from the trees’ branches, waiting for the chance to garrotte you.  

And yes, if you survived all that, the view from the top probably was fantastic, but Maria would be too busy fighting for breath to notice or care.

It was all right for Paul.  He was built – and acted – like a mountain goat, except for the hat, of course which, if he’d been a real goat he’d have eaten by now which would have been no bad thing.

“I’m not really in the mood,” she said.

“But a bit of fresh air will make you feel better.”

Maria was about to point out that a couple of hours on the sofa with her magazines and a bar or three of chocolate would make her feel better but he had That Look on his face again.

That Look had first appeared the day she’d had a funny turn in the undies section of Marks and Spencers.  Her legs had, for no good reason, suddenly buckled under her and as she fell, she grabbed the nearest thing – a rack full of Special Offer knickers.  The last thing she remembered before darkness and knickers overwhelmed her was how her mother used to tell her if she was going out to make sure she had clean underwear on, in case she had an accident and ended up in hospital.

Well, she didn’t end up in hospital – although she’d have been as well prepared, knicker-wise, as she’d ever be – but in the doctor’s surgery, where both he and Paul had That Look on their faces.

“You’ve had a wake up call which you’d do well to heed,” the doctor said before coming out with such a torrent of long, unfamiliar words that her eyes glazed over, while Paul was nodding vigorously.  The only words she did catch, although she wished she hadn’t, were Late Onset Diabetes, diet and lifestyle changes.

“Are you still fostering?” the doctor asked.

“Just Jay and Bethany at the moment,” she said.  “Three year old twins. I’ve been looking after them while their mum recovers from an operation but she’s back on her feet now so they’ll be going home any day now.”

“How many children have you fostered now?  Or have you lost count?”

Lost count?  She’d never do that because they all meant so much to her.  Some, like little Jay and Bethany, only stayed for a couple of weeks while others were with her for years.  She loved and remembered them all.

“Eighty-seven,” she said proudly.  “It takes forever to write my Christmas cards.”

“I’m sure.”  He flashed her a brief smile, then sent her world spinning out of kilter as he added: “You’ve done a great job but I strongly advise you call it a day now.”

She heard Paul’s sharp intake of breath, felt him lean across and take her hand in his as she stared blankly at the doctor across his desk.

“You mean – g-give up fostering all together?  B-but I can’t do that.”

“And what would have happened if Paul hadn’t been with you and the children this morning when you blacked out?” he asked.

For once in her life, she didn’t respond with her usual breezy: “Oh, I’ll manage.  I usually do.”

……………………

Two days later, Jay and Bethany went home to their mum, leaving Maria wandering forlornly through the empty rooms. She’d never known her house without children, at least not for the last twenty years.  Twenty years of tears, tantrums and tussles as well as love, laughter and sheer unbounded joy.

It was what she did.  Looking after children, caring for them, loving them. Watching so many of them grow from  poor broken little people into happy, confident ones gave her a buzz like nothing else could.  And she was good at it.  

She was even good at saying goodbye, knowing she’d helped turn their lives around and that many of them would stay in touch. Knowing, too, there were always other children, waiting for the chance that she could give them.

‘But being good at saying goodbye isn’t really much to show for a lifetime’s work, is it?’ she thought with an uncharacteristic spurt of self pity. ‘When Paul retired recently, he left with a half decent pension and a set of golf clubs.  But without children to look after, I’m not much good at anything, except perhaps cooking.  My chocolate cake has coaxed many a withdrawn youngster out of their shell.’

“You know what the doctor said, love,”

Maria looked up sharply.  She’d almost forgotten that Paul was still standing there, his waterproof rustling, his pimply hat pushed back even further where he’d been worriedly scratching his head.  And she hated worrying him.  She’d tried, really tried to follow the doctor’s advice.  But it was difficult.

“Lose some weight and get plenty of exercise,” he’d said. “That will put you back on your feet.”

But the trouble was, without the children to run around after, picking up everything from stray socks to lost homework, her weight began to pile on, not come off.  This, of course, wasn’t helped by the fact she was still doing the same amount of baking as always, only now there was only her and Paul to eat the cakes, pies and puddings she loved to cook.  And now, Paul was even suggesting she gave that up.

He’d taken on the task of her ‘Lifestyle Change’  with the same single-minded zeal he’d approached his job. She’d become, she realised, his latest Project. Every week he’d come up with some new form of torture that he laughingly called exercise.

First there was golf.  But she didn’t get past the first green and would be still there now, trying to get that silly little ball into that miniscule hole if the foursome behind hadn’t got impatient.  Then there was swimming, but she hurt her back climbing down the steps into the pool.  And as for getting on a bike again, the memory of that out of control, headlong rush into the hedge where she’d ended up face down in a patch of brambles still gave her nightmares.

Now he thought he was going to get her to go charging up Henley Hill with only the promise of a slimline tonic and a lettuce leaf at the end of it?  In his dreams.  She picked up her magazine, ready to return to the Triple Chocolate Mousse.

“My back still hurts from swimming and my bramble scratches are still pretty uncomfortable,” she said.  “But you go ahead.  I’ll be fine.”

But of course she was anything but fine, sitting sad and alone in the tidiest, the quietest and the emptiest of empty nests. An old fat mother hen with no chicks to fuss and cluck over.  She missed the children so much it hurt and the realisation that there would be no more grieved her beyond belief. 

Paul, desperately anxious to find something, anything, to help lift her out of her depression had even suggested she get a job to give herself something else to think about  – but what could she do?  What sort of jobs were there for people whose only skills were baking cakes, telling stories that would turn tears into laughter – and, oh yes, being good at saying goodbye.

……………………..

Maria beamed with triumph as she stepped off the scales.  A whole stone gone.  But she didn’t need the scales to tell her she was losing weight – her clothes were doing that.  Some of them were so loose she’d have to go and get some new ones.  She hadn’t been back To Marks and Spencers since the knicker rack incident but she was fairly sure they wouldn’t recognise her.

She looked – and felt – better than she’d done for years and the doctor was as delighted as she was.

And it was all down to having young Ben in the house.  As demanding and hard work as he was, she was loving every minute of it and was delighted the house was filled with laughter again.  It had lost its unnatural tidiness too, as his toys were scattered about the place, just as she liked it.

He kept both her and Paul busy and she was so thankful to Paul for suggesting it.

“It’s ok. If it looks like being too much for you, I’ll help,” he’d said when at first she’d looked a bit unsure. “I’ll enjoy it.  He’s such a lovely little chap, so bright and affectionate. Well?  What do you think?”

What did she think?  She thought having Ben was the best thing that had happened to her for ages. It had banished her depression and turned her life around in the best possible way.  Since his arrival she’d been too busy to bake – and chocolate cake was bad for him anyway.   She’d started walking more, too.  At least twice a day, every day, whatever the weather.  They’d even been up Henley Hill several times and although it still made her puff and pant, it was getting easier.

Paul was right about Ben being intelligent, too.  He was as bright as a button and was learning every day, bless him.  So, of course, was she.

Her initial doubts, when Paul had first suggested they become Puppy Walkers for the Guide Dogs for the Blind had long gone.  And their first puppy, Ben, a beautiful golden labrador, was a delight.

There was just one slight problem looming on the horizon.  In spite of what she’d told them, she wasn’t at all sure that, when the time came, she’d be any good at saying goodbye.

1820 words

A reader’s special memories – and my short story OUT OF BALANCE

It’s always a delight to hear from readers and recently a lovely lady called Gilly Metcalfe wrote to me to say how much she enjoyed my Idea Store column in Writers’ Forum, particularly the one where I was talking about how my family have inspired so many of my short stories.

“I have so many handed down family stories ” she told me. “My mother was one of ten children and like you, loved putting on plays.  My grandfather, a publican, was a founder member of Chelsea football Club and had the Rising Sun ( now The Butcher’s Hook)  they were just opposite the playing field at Stamford Bridge and my aunts and uncles had many childish memories of hilarious events connected with those days.

She then went on to add a delightful poem that she had written about her father, who was always trying new things,

A Man of Many interests

He had a go at many things

All in strict rotation:

Pelmanism, Christian Science,

And deep sea navigation.

…..

Riding horses, roller skates,

(He ended up in plaster).

Studying the stars and Fates

(That was a disaster).

…..

Potted meats and picnics

And camping by the river.

Keeping up with Father

Sent us all a-quiver

…..

He joined the Home Guard, did his bit

As shrapnel showered down.

He fought the fires and faced the blitz

To save old London Town.

…..

Now the man of many interests

Has new challenges in hand,

Bungee jumping with the angels

In happy Neverland.

…..

Isn’t that fun?  Gilly’s family and her father in particular sound fascinating so I contacted her to find out more about them and, of course, about her.

“I am in my nineties,” she told me.  “I have so many family stories.  The Fire Dance was what my father performed at our parties.  Each child was given a box of matches and he danced energetically, wearing a newspaper Hawaiian skirt made by my mother and cut into long fringes and tucked into the top of his trousers.  We had to try and set fire to him as he danced.  Finally he would slow down so a child could actually set fire to the fringe.  He would then snatch off the skirt, throw it down and stamp on it until the flames were out.  Everyone ran around the room screaming.  The Fire Dance was very popular.”

I’m sure it was although I wonder what today’s Health and Safety people would make of it!  And Gilly has many more family memories to cherish.

“So many titles come to mind: ‘Great Aunty Minnie and the Christmas Pudding, ‘Great Aunty Minnie gets the Better of Hitler,’ ‘Great Aunty Minnie Disapproves,’ and so on. Or my Grandmother accidentally sending a false moustache to the Bank with a note saying, ‘Please place to the Credit of my Account.’ Another time, when she minded us for the day, the dog ate the middle out of the egg-and-bacon pie. She turned the crust upside-down and spread jam on it. That was our dinner, but it still had bits of bacon rind in it. We made the most of everything during the war.”

Grandmother’s jam and bacon pie would probably go down a storm on Masterchef.  I asked Gilly what she writes about when she’s not writing poems about her father.

“I have written lots for feature pages in local newspapers, magazines, and anywhere – a wide assortment of subjects ranging from ‘Rare Moths of Dungeness,’ ‘Malaria on the Marsh,’ The Wickedest Man in the World,’ and many biographical pieces on blue-plaque awardees. Also fiction and poems of all sorts – ‘How to Draw a Kingfisher on a Computer,’ and I’ Got Bovver wiv my Little Bruvver.’ And nature poems and lots and lots more. I have spent the last two years researching for an academic paper on ‘God’s Word on Baler Twine’ which is about the mysterious scriptural textboards in the little Romney Marsh churches.”

My thanks to Gilly for such a fascinating glimpse into her wonderful family.  and I hope she goes on writing about them and about her many other interests for many, many years to come.

……

The copy for that particular issue of Writers’ Forum was written when I was emerging from a post-Covid brain fog and I used the rest of the column to talk about a short story I wrote that was inspired, not by my father this time (there’s no way anything he did comes close to that Fire Dance!) but from a card I bought for my Chartered Accountant son.  

In my column I explained to my readers how this jokey card led to a short story idea and promised that the story ‘Out of Balance’ would appear on my blog.  So, here it is:

Out of Balance

Jane bristled as she read the birthday card.

Old accountants never die,” it announced. “They just lose their balance.”

The card was wrong on so many levels. First, thirty-five was not old. Second, she had never lost her balance in her life, either literally (thanks to her daily yoga practice) or metaphorically (thanks to the fact that she was a totally consistent, even handed Libran) and she wasn’t about to start doing so just because she was now half way to her three score years and ten.

And third, that it should have been Conor, of all people, to have sent such a card proved what Jane was beginning to suspect. That she and Conor were totally incompatible. 

In fact, to paraphrase his silly card, as a couple they were completely out of balance.

Her doubts were confirmed later that day. As always when there was a special occasion coming up, she had everything planned. She’d treated herself to a glitzy new dress that had cost not only an arm and a leg, but head, shoulders, knees and toes as well. But it was so worth it. She was off to have her hair done this afternoon and she’d managed to book a table at Luigi’s, the smartest restaurant in town for this evening. She couldn’t think of a better way to spend her birthday.

It didn’t bother her that it was always down to her to do all the arranging, even for something like this. Conor was hopeless at that sort of thing.

But that was fine. She was good at organising. He wasn’t. That was just the way things were and she was ok with that. No, it wasn’t his lack of organisational skills that were giving her these crippling doubts but something much more fundamental.

The truth was, they were total and complete opposites. He was a dreamer, she was the practical one. He was an optimist, she a realist. He liked dogs. She liked cats. The list was endless.

And their relationship simply wasn’t going to work.

Should she cancel this evening, feeling the way she did? It was hardly the right thing to ‘dump’ someone in a place like Luigi’s, was it? She sighed as, being the true Libran she was, she weighed up all the possible options. She was in a right ‘mardle’, as Conor would say.

Then her phone rang. And her ‘mardle’ suddenly got a whole lot worse.

“Hi, sweetheart.” The excitement in Conor’s voice made his Irish accent even more pronounced than usual. “I’ve got some terrific news, so I have.”

So, no ‘Happy birthday, Jane’. Nor even a ‘Did you get my card?’ Just ‘I’ve got some terrific news, so I have’

This better had be terrific, Conor O’Mallin, so it had, she thought. 

“What is it?” she asked as she reminded herself that her idea of ‘terrific news’ and Conor’s were often poles apart.

“Remember that agent I was telling you about? Well, he’s in town tonight. He’s going to be at the Three Bells checking out some local bands – and he wants to hear us. Apparently he’d heard us at some gig we did a few weeks back and thinks we may be what he’s looking for. This could be it, sweetheart. The Big One.”

“Tonight? But I’ve booked Luigi’s. I told you -“

“Cancel it. We can go to Luigi’s any night. But I’ll never get this chance again.”

“But it’s my -” she began but stopped. He was so caught up in the excitement of the ‘Big One’ that he’d obviously forgotten that today was her birthday. Disappointment thudded to the pit her stomach. She’d so wanted her suspicion that things weren’t going to work between her and Conor to be wrong. But there was no pleasure in being proved right. 

It wasn’t about him forgetting her birthday – he had, after all, remembered to send her a card. It was yet one more example of how very, very different they were.

“Now you will be there tonight, won’t you?” he went on, his voice fizzing with barely controlled excitement. “Because I’ve got something really special -“

“No, Conor,” she cut in, wishing with all her heart she didn’t have to do this but knowing she must. “I won’t be there, I’m afraid. I’m going to spend the evening with Mum. I might even persuade her to come to Luigi’s with me. She’s still very low, you know. Missing Dad and all that.”

There was a stunned silence on the other end of the phone. Jane could imagine the expression on his face. The puzzled look in his eyes. She steeled herself not to give in and tell him she’d come tonight after all.

“Oh my God. How could I have been so stupid? It’s your birthday.” He’d finally remembered. “Jeez, I’m so sorry, sweetheart. It’s just – well, the call from the agent pushed everything out of my head. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. But I can’t -“

“I know you can’t,” she said, struggling to keep the tears at bay, at least until she could end the call. “Don’t worry about it. Best of luck for tonight,” she added. “Not that you’ll need luck. You’ll be brilliant, as always. We’ll talk tomorrow, OK?”

The call ended, she sat staring at her phone for a long time. She knew she was doing the right thing but why did it feel so bad? Was it because she couldn’t imagine life without Conor? He made her laugh, he made her cry but he always, always made her feel gloriously, zingingly alive.

But you couldn’t build a future, a life on zing, could you? You only had to look at the mess her father had left behind when he died to realise that. It didn’t add up. And for Jane everything had to add up.

Lose her balance? Not this accountant, no matter how ‘old’ she became. It simply wasn’t in her nature.

……

“Conor and I have broken up,” Jane said, totally unprepared for how much saying those words would hurt. “Or, we will when I get around to seeing him so that I can tell him to his face. It’s hardly the sort of thing to do in a text, is it?”

“Don’t get me wrong, love,” her mother said. “It’s lovely to see you. But why aren’t you out with Conor? I thought you had a special night arranged?”

“But why?” Her mother’s eyes widened with astonishment. “I really thought he was The One. You were so good together.”

“Because… well, because..” Jane twisted her hair around her fingers and avoided her mother’s eyes. “Because I don’t want to end up with a man like Dad.” The words came out in a rush. But she ploughed on, trying to ignore her mother’s shocked intake of breath. “He – he was an irresponsible dreamer, just like Conor. Always looking for the next best thing but never quite finding it. Lurching from one failed dream to the next. And then, when he died, leaving you with such a mountain of debts that you had to get a job in that pub, working all hours to earn enough to pay it off -“

“Stop right there, young lady!” There was an edge to her mother’s voice that Jane had never heard before. “For starters, if you do find a man like your father, then you’ll be one very lucky girl, believe me. And I always thought Conor was that man.”

“Then you thought wrong. I’ve just realised how incompatible we are. He’ll never change.”

“And why would you want him to?” her mother said. “I knew what your father was like when I married him and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about him. Yes, he was a dreamer, Jane, just like your Conor -“

“Not my Conor any more.”

“Just like Conor and I was privileged to share that dream. And yes, we had some hard times. But he was a good, loving husband and a kind and caring father. You can’t ask any more from a man.”

Jane shook her head. She didn’t want to remember what a kind and caring man her father had been. Didn’t want anything to breach the wall she’d built so carefully around her heart since his sudden shocking death from a heart attack eight months earlier.

Her mother looked at her intently. Then her voice softened. “I’d no idea you felt like this about your Dad. But, sweetheart, you’ve got it all wrong. I didn’t take that job to pay off his debts. Where on earth did you get that idea from? Yes, there were a few, but they were covered by his life insurance. I took the job in the pub to get me out of the house during the long, lonely evenings. And I love working there. It’s really helping and the people are so nice.”

Jane stared at her mother without speaking for a long, long time. Then, slowly the wall around her heart crumbled and the hard lump that had lodged in her chest ever since that awful day began to dissolve as the tears flowed unchecked down her face.

Her mother put her arms around her and held her close. “It worried me that you never cried for him, darling,” she said, her own voice choked with tears. “It’s time to let go of all that anger. I felt angry too, you know. Still do sometimes, in fact. I look up at the stars some nights and I want to scream and curse at him. It’s all part of the grieving process, so I’m told.”

“Why didn’t he take better care of himself, Mum? Why didn’t he go to the doctor, like we told him to when he first had those chest pains? If he had -“

Her mother put a gentle finger on Jane’s lips. “It was his time,” she said softly. “That’s all. And what you need to do now – what I need to do as well – is focus on the good times we all had together. The grieving process is hard because he was so very, very much loved. But it’s the price you pay for loving someone. A price I’m more than willing to pay. And if I had my time over again, I wouldn’t change a thing – except,” she added with a wry smile, “I’d frogmarch the stubborn old fool to the doctor instead of believing him when he said it was only indigestion.”

…..

An hour later, Jane’s tears had all been spent, her make up repaired and she felt better than she’d done since her father’s death.

She’d also made a discovery. Something her accountancy training should have made her realise sooner.

It was all about debits and credits. The first rule of double entry book-keeping, that she’d learned all those years ago, was that for every debit there is a corresponding credit. That’s what achieved perfect balance. Total opposites, balancing each other out. 

Just like she and Conor did. His yin to her yang.

The Three Bells was so packed she had some difficulty getting across the crowded bar. Conor and his band were in the middle of a number. It was one of her favourites and she was disappointed to have missed it. It ended with huge applause and her heart swelled with pride.

Conor held up his hand and spoke into the microphone.

“Thank you so much,” he said. “Now, for our last number, this is a song for a very special lady who sadly can’t be here tonight. I wrote the song for her but I’ll sing it anyway.”

Suddenly, he looked across to where she was standing and a huge smile lit up his face. He began to sing.

I spread my dreams at your feet,

My life, my love and my song.

Together we are complete.

One life, one love and one song.

Old accountants needn’t lose their balance, Jane realised. Not if, like her, they’d found the perfect counter-balance. 

Where does JD Kirk (one of my favourite crime writers!) get his ideas from?

I am delighted to welcome one of my favourite authors to my blog this week.

I discovered crime writer JD Kirk thanks to the great Facebook group that I’m always mentioning – The UK Crime Book Club.  I joined a few years ago now when the numbers were in the low hundreds and there are now, I believe, over 20,000. I have met some fabulous, new to me writers there – and JD Kirk is way up there with the best of them. (Sorry if I sound a bit fan-girly but I had Covid recently and JD’s Logan series as well as his new series, took me right out of myself and even made me laugh out loud on days when I really didn’t feel like laughing).

So if you haven’t come across his books yet, do check them out. The DCI Logan books are police procedurals set in Scotland.  They are full of brilliantly drawn characters, evocative settings and great storylines. He is (as I’ve said in the magazine extract below) one of those truly gifted writers who can make you laugh and cry in the same scene.  There is one scene in particular that for some reason has stayed in my mind all this time, where he’s delivering some harrowing news to a couple and it’s all very emotional and sad.  But at the same time he is sitting in one of those bendy Ikea chairs and wondering how on earth he is going to get out of it!  I have one of those chairs and the memory of that scene makes me laugh every time I sit in it. 

I contacted JD to see if he would be happy to be featured in my Idea Store column in Writers’ Forum and also on this blog and I was delighted when he said yes. I was particularly interested in talking to him about a spin off series that he’s written, featuring Bob Hoon, a secondary character from the Logan series.

I asked JD what made him choose Bob Hoon – or was he one of those characters who simply would not go away?

‘It was exactly that,’ he explains. ‘And also the complete opposite of that. I never intended Bob Hoon to be anything but a background character – a caricature of a horrible boss, who readers would love to hate. Before long, though, the majority of the emails I was receiving was from readers who either wanted more of Bob in the Logan books, or wanted him removed completely, because they couldn’t stand him. That was when the idea of giving him his own book first came to me, and while I initially dismissed it as a ridiculous idea, it – and he – kept nagging away at me until I could no longer refuse. It was a bit like a demonic possession which I’m now in the process of trying to exorcise!’

I am one of the readers who loved Bob Hoon, mainly because JD Kirk writes with such humour although be warned: if you don’t like strong language in a book then you will definitely be one of the people who don’t like Hoon! He takes swearing to a whole new, creative level.

I have recently finished North Wind, the first in the Hoon series and I loved it. It has all the ingredients I’ve come to expect from a JD Kirk novel – plenty of action, great characters, lots of humour and deeply touching moments of pathos. He is one of those talented writers who can make you laugh and cry in the same scene.

Does he have any more books planned for Bob Hoon?

‘I knew from the outset that I wanted to give him a trilogy, telling one overarching story, but with each able to be read as a standalone. The second book in the series, Southpaw, is published in March, with the third, Westward, coming out in May. Frankly, after everything I put him through, it’s a miracle he survived the first book, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed heaping even more pain and misery on him in the sequels.

‘Part of the appeal of writing a Hoon series was the challenge of taking this frankly horrendous character and getting readers not just to tolerate him, but to actively root for him to succeed. From around the seventh book in the Logan series, I started to introduce a different side to Bob, and while he always remains pretty relentlessly awful, you get to understand why, and see occasional hints that he might not be a complete monster all of the time. Just most of the time.’

He has certainly succeeded, and it has been fascinating to see how Bob Hoon’s character has changed over time as the reader discovers more about his background, which goes part of the way to explaining why he acts the way he does.

But does that mean that there aren’t going to be any more Logan books? I asked JD anxiously, because I – like many others – am a huge fan of the series which just gets better and better.

‘There are plenty more Logan books to come, and I have no plans to stop them at any point soon. I’m already hard at work on book 14, City of Scars, and am starting to throw around ideas for the one after that, too, so Logan is going nowhere!’

………….

Me

Thank you so much for the magazine interview and for agreeing to this Q&A session.  Firstly, how would you describe your genre?

JD

I think the Logan series can be best described as a Scottish police procedural with a heavy dusting of dark humour, and the Hoon series as “Jack Reacher, but with a lot more swearing.”

Me

Great answer!  I’m a huge Reacher fan. What inspires you most when you start writing? Is it the characters? Settings? 

JD

For me it’s always about the characters first and foremost. Everything else comes a distant second. With the Logan series, while the plots are all proper crime fiction storylines with murders happening left, right, and centre, readers keep coming back to spend time with those characters again, not to find out whodunnit.

Me

We certainly do.  I think I’m more than a little in love with Jack Logan.

Tell us a little about your writing journey.  How did it start?

JD

I’ve wanted to be an author since I was nine years old, when I first discovered you could get paid for making up stories!

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a comedy horror screenplay set in the Highlands of Scotland, which I wrote when I was 17. Since then, I’ve written over 200 books for dozens of publishers, under a variety of pen names, covering everything from picture books to science fiction.

Me

That’s an incredible body of work.  And your plans for the future? Lots more Logan books I hope.

JD

I write about 5-6 books a year, so my future plans are largely to slow down a bit and occasionally take some time off! Whether that will ever happen, though, is a different matter.

Beyond that, I’m developing a new series that’s part crime fiction, part fantasy, which is unlike anything else I’ve ever written. The first book, RAGNAROK RIDGE, should be out towards the end of the year.

Me

5 to 6 books a year is an astonishing output, especially books of such high quality. I should think you have totally earned the right to take some time off. Although speaking as one of your fans, I can’t help hoping it won’t be for too long. 

Finally, tell us three things about you that we might not know about you.

JD

1  I wrote for The Beano for a number of years.

2 I (technically) co-wrote a book with Roald Dahl long after his death.

3 Since 2018, I have exclusively self-published all my own work.

Me

The Beano and Roald Dahl!  My son was an ardent fan of both and he will be well impressed – as am I.

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions so patiently.

Social Media Links, blog, website etc.

Twitter.com/jdkirkbooks
Instagram.com/jdkirkbooks
Facebook.com/jdkirkbooks

website

JDKirk.com

The all important buy links.  

link.jdkirk.com/dciloganseries
link.jdkirk.com/hoon1

Author Bio

JD Kirk is the author of the multi-million selling DCI Logan series. He also does not exist. Instead, he’s the alter ego of author Barry Hutchison, who lives halfway up a mountain in the remote Highlands of Scotland with his wife, two children, and an assortment of annoying pets. He enjoys reading, eating excessively, and writing about himself in third person.

Angels on Oil Drums – one of my favourite short stories

In my Ideas Store column in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am telling the story behind the first short story I ever sold and how it was inspired by my childhood.

I will post the full story behind the story here (and separate the fact from the fiction) after the magazine has been out for a while, but in the meantime, as promised in my column, here is the short story. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! It still makes me laugh and brings back such vivid memories.

ANGELS ON OIL DRUMS

The day King George VI died was a strange one. At school, Mrs Perry put a vase of snowdrops on a purple velvet cloth in front of the picture of His Majesty and told us to pray for Princess Elizabeth. But I thought this was a bit unkind to Princess Margaret so I prayed for her as well.

And at home, things were even stranger.  Mum wasn’t in the kitchen like she usually was when we got in from school.  Instead, she was in the garden. Crying  By the washing line.

She didn’t seem to notice that only half of the best green tablecloth was on the line.  The other half had knocked over two of  Dad’s brussel sprout plants and was trailing in the dirt. She stood, one hand on the line, the other in the blue gingham peg bag I’d made her in Home Crafts last term. It was as if she’d got half way through pegging out when she’d frozen, like we do in the playground when we’re playing Statues.  Only this was no game.

Her face was lifted towards the sky and  I thought at first she was watching the rooks squabbling in the tops of the beech trees behind our cottage – until I saw her puffy eyes, her red nose and the tears glistening on her cheeks.

‘Mum?’  I dragged the wet tablecloth off the brussel sprouts, knocking over another one as I did so, ‘Mrs Perry told us and I’m sad too.’

‘For goodness’ sake, Jenny, what do you want to go creeping up behind people like that for?’ She dropped the other end of the tablecloth as she turned her back on me and rummaged in her apron pocket for her hankie. ‘And what are you on about?  What did Mrs Perry tell you?’

‘About the King, of course.’ The tablecloth, which smelt of soap powder and brussel sprouts, was cold and slippery as I tried to brush off the worst of the dirt.  The brussel sprouts, I was glad to see (because I hate them) were beyond my help.  ‘Isn’t that why you’re crying?’

‘I’m not crying. I don’t know where you get your daft ideas from, really I don’t. Run along indoors and see what your brothers are up to before they wreck the place.  I’d no idea it was that time already. Don’t stand gawping at me, child.  I’ve got a cold, that’s all.’

She was bent over the big stone sink in the scullery, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows, rubbing away at the tablecloth when our dad came home. I was glad to see him.  I didn’t know what was wrong with Mum, but I knew she didn’t have a cold and, to be truthful, I didn’t think she was that upset about the King, either.

‘Are you all right now? Or -?’ But he got no further because as he started to speak, she turned the tap on so hard, water hit the tablecloth and sprayed out like a fountain. I was watching from behind the pantry door and knew she’d go mad, because she hated mess and the scullery floor was like the swimming baths.

Instead, she spoke in a fierce whisper. ‘It’s all very well for you to say “we’ll manage” and “what’s another mouth to feed?” but I can’t go through all that again, Fred. Not now, with the twins about to start school.’

‘It’ll be different this time.’ Dad said, ‘Our Jenny’s of an age now where she can help out –’

‘Indeed she will not.’  I forgot to breath.  What did Dad think he was doing?  I could tell, even without seeing her, she had her lips pressed together so hard there’d be little white lines in the corner of her mouth.  Didn’t he know when she was like that it was best not to argue?

‘She’s a sensible girl-‘ he began.

‘Jenny will have homework to do when she goes up to the Grammar School come September.  She’s a bright girl and Mrs Perry says she should do well.  There’s going to be more in her life than getting married and having babies.  I’ll make sure of that.’

And then, on this strange day, the strangest thing of all happened.  Our Dad, who never, ever raised his voice, especially not to Mum, shouted, ‘I’m sorry your life turned out so badly.’ Then he wrenched open the back door and stomped out.

The windows rattled as he slammed the door behind him and Cassie, our dog, who’d been asleep in front of the Rayburn woke with a start and hissed.  Poor Cassie hasn’t barked since the day she was tossed into a blackthorn hedge by a bad-tempered Friesian heifer.  The shock and shame of it had put an end to her career as a cow dog – and to her bark.

The best she could manage was a hissing croak, like someone trying to shout and whisper at the same time. Usually, we had to try hard not to laugh at her because Mum said dogs had feelings too and how would we like it if everybody laughed at us?  But that day, nobody laughed at Cassie

………………………………..

Although I hated to hear Mum and Dad row, I was thrilled to hear Mum call me a bright girl.  I’d no idea I was in her good books and decided that when she’d calmed down a bit, I’d ask if Rosemary Dinsdale could come to tea. More than anything in the world – except, of course, passing for the Grammar School –  I wanted to be Rosemary’s  best friend. Yesterday she’d fallen out with Sheila Grant, so this was my best chance ever. 

Rosemary was small, neat, and pretty and Mrs Perry must need new glasses. Why else would she have chosen Sheila for the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the School Concert?  As I told Rosemary, anyone could see she looked far more like a Sugar Plum Fairy than Sheila ever could.  And what did it matter if she got muddled and tripped over her own feet sometimes? Even Sugar Plum fairies did that now and then, I supposed.

Rosemary was everything I longed to be.  She was an only child, with silky blonde plaits that reached halfway down her back. She lived next to the church in a big house with lots of windows, a swing in the garden and a proper lawn.  Even the flowers grew in well-behaved rows and there wasn’t a brussel sprout or raspberry cane in sight.

I, however, had straight, mousey hair, cut in what Mum called a “sensible” style, with a fringe like a bookend. Our farm cottage had tiny windows, thick walls and no room to move, with me, Mum, Dad, my three brothers (that’s Peter and twins Antony and David) and, of course, Cassie, as tightly packed as Mum’s bottled gooseberries.

As for our garden, there was a square of grass the boys had turned into a football pitch, Dad’s vegetable patch, a hen house, some apple trees with a washing line strung between and a forest of out of control raspberry canes where the hens would hide when it was time for them to be shut in for the night.

But what I admired most about Rosemary was how every day, at break, she’d have two chocolate digestive biscuits wrapped in a snowy paper napkin. What, I wondered, must it be like to live somewhere where they had chocolate biscuits all the year round and not just at Christmas when Gran turned up with her tin of Peak Frean Family Assorted?

And as I was thinking of Christmas, that was when I got one of my Really Great Ideas.  I often had them, as my brothers knew to their cost. 

But this was The Best Yet.

…………………………………….

‘A St George’s Day Pageant.’  I told Peter as we walked home from school next day. ‘That’ll cheer Mum up. Remember how she enjoyed the Christmas one at school?’

‘Sounds daft to me.’ Peter swung open the farm gate that led to our cottage. ‘Who’s going to be in it?’

‘Well, me.. and you..’

Peter snorted.  But I ignored it.

‘- And the twins..’

Peter snorted again.  ‘They won’t –’

‘… And Rosemary Dinsdale.’  That was the best bit. Nobody else from school, and especially not Sheila Grant, would be asked.  I’d have Rosemary all to myself and when the Pageant was the huge success I knew it would be, Rosemary and I ‘d be best friends.  For ever.

‘Rosemary Dinsdale?’ Peter’s snort turned into a yelp of laughter, then a cry of pain as I thumped the top of his arm. With my knuckles. Hard.   ‘That hurt.’  He rubbed it and glared at me.  ‘I’m not going to be in your stupid Pageant. Nor will the twins.  It’ll be just you and that stuck up Rosemary Dinsdale.’

But of course it wasn’t.  Peter had forgotten how “persuasive” I could be.  He was no match for me, any more than Anthony and David were.  One of the few advantages of being the eldest in a family of four.

Rosemary, however, was gratifyingly enthusiastic.  Especially when I assured her it would be the easiest thing in the world to include a Sugar Plum Fairy in a Pageant about St George.  Everybody knows dragons and fairies go together.  

………………………………………

The Pageant was planned for the Saturday nearest St George’s Day. The final rehearsal had gone well and even the weather was kind.  It was a perfect Spring day, when the sun shone from an achingly blue sky and the air fizzed with the scent of May blossom and the sound of birdsong.

The transformation from back garden to theatre was amazing. We didn’t have enough kitchen chairs so Dad had laid out bales of hay which we’d covered with blankets.  Mr and Mrs Dinsdale were both working and couldn’t come but we still had a good audience. There was Mum, Dad, Gran –who’d only brought Rich Tea biscuits seeing as it wasn’t Christmas so I was praying Rosemary would forget I’d promised her the pink wafers- the Vicar, Mr and Mrs Robinson who own the farm and a thin, anxious man with a shiny suit who’d been hoping to sell Mum some yellow dusters and a floor mop.

For the stage, Mum had let us bring out the hall rug to cover the grass and we’d draped a pair of grey blankets across the washing line for the backdrop and I’d placed four of Mum’s big enamel jugs stuffed with crab apple and cherry blossoms along the front. But best of all -so good, the Vicar said they were “astonishing”- were the two angels with long golden hair and outstretched wings who smiled down on the audience.

The music began.  I’d based the pageant around  a stirring hymn about Saints resting from their labours (Allelulia!).  I made a fetching St George and Peter did his best as the dragon.  His cries when St George’s sword thwacked across his back were very realistic.  It was fast, colourful, action packed and going very well, until…

Until the angel on the left fell off his oil drum.  And the one on the right started to cry and said he wanted to get down, too.

I nearly cried too. I’d worked so hard to get those angels looking right.  I’d got Dad to bring across a couple of empty oil drums from the farm and stand them, on end, either side of the stage.  Then I’d scrounged a pair of old sheets and draped them over the twins and their drums.  I’d even unravelled lengths of the yellow twine that was used to bind hay bales and fashioned them into beautiful golden wigs.  

And I’d bribed them with my Toby Twirl Annual and the remaining half of my Easter Egg, both, fool that I was, given in advance. They’d eaten the chocolate and I couldn’t bear to think what they’d done to Toby Twirl.  Now they were about to ruin the entire Pageant by walking out.

I stopped the music. Rather, I stopped singing – Rosemary and Peter had given up several bars earlier – and brandished my sword at the remaining angel.

‘Antony, you stay right where you are. Mum, please make David come back.  He’ll do it if you tell him he’s got to.’ Then I turned to the rest of the audience and with a flourish St George himself would have been proud of announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen.  The show goes on.’

But as I launched in to the next part of the hymn, about the dawning of yet more glorious days when Saints triumphant rise in bright arrays  (Alleluia!),  Antony’s cries to get down soared above everything.  David decided to make a run for it, shook off his sheet and binder twine wig and dashed across the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy made her sensational entrance.  

She launched into her famous pirouette, when mid-turn, her foot got caught  in discarded angel trappings.  My warning cry came too late as she flailed about and grabbed the nearest thing to break her fall. Sadly, that was the backdrop.  There was a crack like a shotgun going off and Mum’s washing line lay on the floor, with Rosemary buried beneath a tangle of white sheeting, binder twine and grey blanket. 

Cassie suddenly remembered she was a cow dog and starting rounding everybody up, her croaks getting louder and louder until, she made a weird throat clearing honk and out came a full throated bark.  A miracle. Cassie had recovered her bark.  It rang out above Rosemary’s muffled screams and Antony’s sobs.

Everyone else, including me, was frozen in shocked silence.  Then Peter went across and helped Anthony down and I shut my eyes.  Mum was going to be furious.   

But when I opened them, she was laughing.  In fact, everyone was. And she didn’t seem to mind about her washing line.  Or that I’d left Antony screaming his head off on top of an oil drum. Or that David was hiding in the raspberry canes.  Or that Cassie, having remembered how to bark had now forgotten how to stop. Everyone was laughing – even Anthony now he was safely back on earth.

Everyone that is except for me.  And, of course, Rosemary Dinsdale.

Again, it was Peter who helped her up. I couldn’t move. Her wand was bent and the binder twine wig had caught on one of the spikes of her crown, so that it covered half her face and wound itself like bindweed around her silken plaits.

 ‘I hate you.’ she screamed at me.  ‘You and your stupid pageant.  Can’t you see they’re all laughing at you?’ Her small grey eyes narrowed with spite.  ‘At you – and your stupid dog, of course. Can’t you make it stop that awful noise? Wait until Sheila  hears about this – this rubbish. Everyone at school will laugh at you.  I’ll make sure of that.’

‘And I’ll tell them how you tripped over your own feet and brought everything crashing down.’  Peter said.  ‘How it was you they were laughing at, not Jenny.  Some fairy you turned out to be.  Fairy elephant, more like it.  Our Jenny’s worth a dozen of you, Rosemary Dinsdale.’

She turned on him, her crown jammed so far down on her head it pushed her ears out, her eyebrows down and made her look like a demented elf.  ‘How dare you talk to me like that,’ she hissed and reached out to grab him, ‘You little –’

‘Leave my brother alone,’ I waved my sword at her.  ‘And you can say whatever you like at school.  I don’t want to be friends with you anymore, anyway.’

I was surprised to find that I meant it and was going to add that Mrs Perry had been right and that she couldn’t dance for toffee, but I didn’t.  Because it was true. She couldn’t dance for toffee.  Or sing either.  In fact, she wasn’t much good at anything. Except looking pretty.  And, of course, the chocolate digestives, which she never shared anyway. 

I looked at Mum.  She was still smiling. Dad had his arm around her and they were looking at each other the way they used to.  Maybe, just maybe, things were going to be all right.

So the Pageant had worked after all.  It had cheered Mum up and Dad too by the look of it. Cassie had recovered her bark.  And of course, by Christmas, the new baby would have arrived.  

And that was when I had another Really Great Idea.  

A Christmas pageant, in the barn this time, so the twins could stand on the raised bits instead of wobbly oil drums.  And then, of course, there’d be a real live baby for the starring role. Maybe Sheila Grant, who everybody knows is a much better dancer than Rosemary Dinsdale, would like to be Mary. 

Oh yes, it was all going to be so beautiful.    

the end

The Day The Music Died – a short story and a painful memory

On this weekend just before Valentine’s Day, it’s quite appropriate that I should be writing about what Shakespeare described as ‘The Food of Love”.  I’m talking about music, of course.

Music has always played a very important part in my life.  I think I was born singing – although I fancy my mother probably had another word for the noise I made!

My father was always singing and to this day, I swear he made some of the songs up!  I can remember him and his sister around the piano in my grandparents’ house singing Silver Threads Among the Gold and “A Rose in a Garden of Weeds”. Then there was “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch. That would always make me cry.  (Unintentional pun there – sorry!) But I have never been able to track down the words to Where’s my other flippin’ sock? That one’s down to you, Dad.

One of my earliest musical memories was one Saturday morning. I was about five and was doing my chores, part of which involved sweeping the broad concrete paths that divided our house from the one next door.

I was beyond thrilled when our next door neighbour called out to me from her kitchen window and gave me sixpence for ‘singing so nicely that it cheered her up.’  Dad, however, suggested she’d probably paid me the money to make me go away.  And he may well have been right.  I went back on several consecutive Saturdays, sang my heart out but never received another sixpence.

I longed to learn to play the piano.  We’d inherited the one that belonged to my grandmother and it took pride of place in our sitting room but was only used to display family photographs.  I would sit at it for ages, peering at the sheet music, learning the words but failing to make any sense of the notes.  But with six children to feed on a farm worker’s wages, there was never any money left over for luxuries like music lessons.

So when I started grammar school, I was thrilled to see Music on the timetable.  Was this, then, my big chance?  Alas, no. Looking back on it, I think the elderly music teacher looked back longingly to the days when she taught at a private school.  She certainly didn’t teach the majority of us anything about music, preferring to address herself only to those girls who had private music lessons, so most of what she talked about went way over my head.

However, there was one thing she did that I loved  She ran the school choir and I couldn’t wait to join. I tried and failed several auditions but eventually she must have grown tired of saying no to me and allowed me to join.

I can still remember some of the songs we used to sing, like The Ash Grove, Barbara Allen, many of these lovely old songs which are now in danger of sinking into obscurity.  I can still remember them now (don’t ask me where I put my car keys yesterday though!) One of these was an arrangement of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I still know all the words to that – and often sang it to my boys when they were little. What was I thinking?  They must have hated it because it does have rather a disturbing ending!

When my children were young, we were lucky enough to move to a village near Wells and I joined the cathedral’s Oratorio Society.  And rediscovered my love of singing.  

But this time, I had better luck.  The conductor – and my fellow altos – were very patient and I learned so much, including how to read music.  The first piece I sang (or, I confess, mimed to for a lot of the time) was Bach’s St Matthews Passion and as soon as I heard it, it was like coming home.  Like I’d just found something I’d been looking for all my life.

I learned more about music that first season that at any other time in my life and I was totally hooked on choral music.  The thrill of being in a large group of singers, with an orchestra, in that lovely building never left me.  I stayed with the society for many years and enjoyed some memorable moments, one of which stands out and still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.  

We were doing Britten’s War Requiem and it had involved some long and difficult rehearsals.  We always had a final afternoon rehearsal before the evening performance.  These would be with the (professional) soloists and orchestra and could be quite hard, intense work.

This particular afternoon, the tenor stood up to sing ‘Move Him Gently Into The Sun” but instead of singing it towards the nave of the cathedral, he turned and sang it to us, the chorus!  It was so moving and we were so touched by his gesture that there was hardly a dry eye among us and when it was our turn to sing, we were all choked up. At least it got all that emotion out of the way in time for the evening performance and maybe that was why he did it.  But it was a wonderful gift and a memory I treasure.

I enjoyed my time with the society so much that even when they introduced auditions I kept going and managed to scrape in.  Just like I had at school.

Then life intervened and things happened and I stopped going.  By the time I rejoined several years later, much had changed.  Gone was the kindly, gentle conductor who carried out the auditions in a small private room well away from the eyes and ears of other people.

Instead, I was warned that the auditions would be held after rehearsal, but we were never told which one.  So, one evening, at the end of rehearsal, he suddenly announced that those who were hoping to join should stay behind for the auditions.

It was a nightmare.  While everyone else was chatting, milling around and putting chairs away (this all took place in the main body of the cathedral) we lined up.  Those who were better prepared than me had brought their own music and we waited in turn.  This took me.right back to those school music lessons when everyone else seemed to know what they were doing and I hadn’t a clue.

By the time it was my turn, I was rigid with fear. I explained that I didn’t have any music (maybe I should have taken my chances with ‘Where’s my other flippin’ sock?!) so I’d sing what we’d been rehearsing that evening and I got about three bars into it and just gave up.  I walked away. And cried all the way home.

Many years later a choir was started in our village.  No auditions necessary.  So I joined and it was great fun.  But then I developed asthma which involved (and still does) a lot of coughing and so I gave up.

Until lockdown.  When the lovely lady who runs the choir started a virtual choir on zoom.  This was the sort of choir for me, I thought.  I can sing and no one can hear me.  So I joined and rediscovered my love of singing.  My sort of choir.  Although I had no intention of joining the real one when things got back to normal.

Then a few months ago, the village choir was allowed to meet for real – and, because I have some very ‘bossy’ friends, (in the nicest possible way) I went along.  We meet in the village hall, with all the door and windows open and everyone bundled into multiple layers of clothing so that we look like a choir of Michelin men.

And we’re singing songs by Katie Perry, the Beach Boys and lots of other people I’ve never heard of (I hadn’t heard of Katie Perry either but I’ve just googled her).  And it’s the best fun. 

So it might not be Bach.  It might not the splendid surroundings of Wells Cathedral.  But the thrill I felt that first time when we sang together, in harmony, was as great as ever.

And no auditions.

And, if, as I believe, that no experience, however painful, is wasted on a writer, below is a short story I wrote a few years ago which drew very heavily on that nightmare of an audition.  It still makes me hot with embarrassment just thinking about it!

The Day The Music Died

Maggie stood tall, straight-backed, her throat almost closed,  her eyes over-bright. Her only thought was to get away without having to speak to anyone. Without having to see the pity and embarrassment in their eyes.

Too late to wish she’d never come.  Too late to wish she’d never let Lindsay talk her into it.

“It’ll be good for you, Mum,” Lindsay had said. “You used to love choral singing – and look, it says here the Cathedral Choral Society is looking for new singers, especially tenors.”

“But they’re male voices,” Maggie said with a smile, knowing Lindsay didn’t share her love of classical music. “I’m an alto.  Or, rather, I was.  Who knows what I am now?  I haven’t sung for years.”

“Then why not give it a try?”

Maggie felt quite guilty about the way her dear, well meaning daughter, who had more than enough to do looking after a young baby, worried about her. Even now, more than a year after John’s sudden, shocking death from a massive heart attack, Lindsay kept finding things for Maggie to do, as if a succession of non-stop activities could somehow fill the un-fillable hole in Maggie’s life.

But this time, maybe Lindsay had got it right. Maggie used to belong to the Cathedral Choral Society years ago but had to give it up when the demands of her job and family had made it difficult to attend the weekly rehearsals. When she saw they were doing Bach’s Mass in B Minor this coming season her heart did something it hadn’t done for a long time.  It gave a little lift of joy.  Bach was one of her favourite composers and she knew she’d enjoy singing those wonderful soaring choruses again.

John used to shake his head at her, puzzled and laughing, as she tried to explain how she got almost as much pleasure from looking at Bach’s music, with its undulating lines of musical notation rippling across the pages, as she did from hearing or singing it.

Going into the cathedral for the first rehearsal of the new season was like meeting up again with an old, dear friend.  She’d forgotten what a thrill it was to walk through that magnificent building, darkened except for the lights in the rehearsal area.  She’d always loved the feeling of belonging, of having the place to herself (at least, her and the other hundred or so members of the Choral Society) now the tourists had gone home.

She loved, too,  the deep shadowy corners, the sonorous echoes, but above all the feeling of reaching back across the centuries as the music she was helping to make soared heavenward into the cathedral’s highest places, the different voice parts weaving in and around each other like ribbons around a maypole.  

It felt good, too, to take her place among the altos again Not that she knew any of them now.  And she certainly didn’t know Simon, the conductor, a young and ambitious man who was, according to the woman on her left, destined for ‘great things.’

As the rehearsal got under way, she realised he was a much more exacting task master than his predecessor.  James had been a soft spoken, gentle man who coaxed the music from his chorus.  Simon, on the other hand, demanded the highest standard right from the very first rehearsal.  But, to her surprise, Maggie found that as her confidence returned, she actually relished the challenge.

“You do realise there’s an audition, don’t you?” the society secretary had explained.  “Simon likes to do it after rehearsal.  Probably in a week or two.  Is that ok?”

“That’s fine.”  Maggie remembered all too clearly when auditions had been introduced, back in James’s time.  Everyone had got very agitated and worried about it, but in the end, it was all done very calmly and kindly.  A bit of sight reading and a  few easy scales to show you weren’t tone deaf which Maggie had managed with ease.

Simon, however, did things differently.  

On the third week, during the break for notices he announced he would be holding auditions after that evening’s rehearsals and would those this applied to please stay behind.

Her first instinct was to put on her coat, hurry out and not come back.  Particularly when she realised the auditions were not going to be like last time, when one by one they were called into a private room, with kindly James urging them to relax and telling them it was nothing to worry about.

Instead, they clustered around the piano in the middle of the rehearsal area, which was still bustling with people chatting in small groups, or busily putting the chairs away.  She stood in line with the other hopefuls, all of whom appeared much better prepared than she was. 

 She felt her first moment of panic when the first singer opened her mouth.  She had a beautiful soprano voice and gave a near perfect solo performance, her clear pure voice rising above the hubbub of one hundred plus people making their way home.

As, one by one, the line grew shorter, each voice was the same stunning standard as the first.  Maggie grew more and more uneasy, a sick feeling in her stomach, her hands clutching her music as if it were a life raft and she had just leapt off the Titanic.

She’d decided she was going to sing the Dona Nobis Pacem  chorus they’d been rehearsing that evening.  It was something she knew well and figured that at least she wouldn’t make a complete fool of herself by losing her place. 

There was no encouraging smile from Simon, seated at the piano.  Just a one bar introduction, during which Maggie forgot all she ever knew about breathing, still less about pitch.  What came out of her mouth was the kind of sound her dog made when someone stepped on his tail.

“I- I’m sorry,” she stammered.  “I – I’m a bit nervous.  I forgot to breathe.  Do you mind if we start again?”

He didn’t exactly sigh and look at his watch.  But she could tell from his body language it was a close run thing.

This time, Maggie forced herself to relax and focus on the music.  The beautiful, beautiful music that had made her cry the first time she heard it. The beautiful, beautiful music that deserved the very best of voices.

She was half way through the seventh bar when her throat, which had been getting tighter and tighter, finally closed over completely and she gave up.  Simon played on for a few more bars then, when it became apparent she wasn’t going to join him, stopped and looked at her.

“That’ll be a no, then?” Maggie said, trying to make it sound casual, like it was no big deal.  He nodded and she walked away, back through the still lingering groups of people.  She walked briskly, shoulders back, her head held high, not looking at anyone. Not wanting to see their pained expressions – or worse still, their pity.

…..

And that was the day the music died for Maggie.  She’d sung all her life, from as far back as she could remember.  She sang when she was happy and sometimes when she was sad.  She sang when she was driving and when she was out walking the dog. She sang when she was working and when she was playing.

Until the night of the audition when something inside her, that little kernel of joy that was everything music meant to her, shrivelled and died.  Like a frost stricken rose.

After that, she never sang again.  Not even Happy Birthday to Harry, her little one year old grandson who was born three months after his Grandad John died. Instead, she just mouthed the words as her daughter and son-in-law sang.

…..

“So I was wondering, Mum, if you’d mind looking after Harry tonight?” Lindsay asked a couple of weeks after the audition.  “Unless it’s your rehearsal night?”

“No.  I decided not to go after all,” Maggie said.  “I didn’t really enjoy it that much, you know.  My voice isn’t what it was.  And it’s – it’s not so good coming home to an empty house.  I’m still not used to that.”

“I understand,” Lindsay said quietly. “But what a shame.  I thought you loved it –”

“What time do you want me tonight?” Maggie cut in.  She wasn’t exactly thrilled about being asked to look after Harry.  Not that she wasn’t very fond of him.  He was a dear little chap, with a smile to melt your bones.

But, the truth was, she wasn’t very good with babies.  Never had been, when she came to think about it.  John was always the one who could calm Lindsay and her brother down when they were little.  He was one those people who was completely at ease with small children.  Not awkward and over anxious like she was.

He’d have made such a lovely granddad.  They’d have made lovely grandparents together.  But on her own, she wasn’t much good.  And young Harry was teething, which meant he was far from being his usual sunny self.

Add to that the fact that she’d never actually looked after him on her own before.  Rob’s mother, Jenny, was a much more hands on grandma than her and Maggie was quite happy to stand back and let her get on with it.  But Jenny was away visiting her other son that week.  So it looked as if, as far as Lindsay was concerned, it was Maggie or nothing.

Lindsay and Rob hadn’t been gone ten minutes when, to Maggie’s dismay, she heard the first fretful wailings coming through the baby monitor.  She left it for a few moments, hoping he’d go back to sleep.  No chance.

By the time she got to his room, his cries had all the volume and passion of the Hallelujah Chorus in full throttle.  His little face was scarlet, his cheeks glistened with tears.

She picked him up, jiggled him around a bit the way she’d seen Lindsay do, offered him a bottle, changed his nappy, even tried to interest him in his toys.  But it was no good.  Nothing she said or did had any effect.  The screaming got louder and shriller, and he was pushing at her with his little fists.

“Oh John, where are you when I need you?” she thought desperately.  “If you were here, you’d know what to do. But then, if you were, he wouldn’t be in this state in the first place.”

She felt like crying along with Harry – and it would have been a toss up whose wails would have been the loudest.

Then, a long forgotten memory tip-toed into her head.  She cradled the unhappy baby in her arms, took a deep calming breath and, very softly, very gently, began to sing.

And amazingly, Harry stopped crying, looked up at her and smiled.

So she took another deep breath and sang some more.  And she didn’t stop singing until Harry gave a little sigh and finally went back to sleep.

Puff the Magic Dragon wasn’t exactly Bach.  But it was a start.