How Do You Tackle Swearing When Writing For Children?

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

This morning I’ve been researching the interesting world of swearing, for my MG fiction book. This is the first time I’ve written for pre-teens and I hadn’t realised how many mild swear words litter my writing, or how different words have different shock values depending on the country.

For example bloody hell and bugger off probably wouldn’t cause too much consternation in the UK, although there is obviously more impact on the written page than in the spoken word. I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid at crap or oh my god or good heavens. But then I come from a non religious family and I’m sure the latter two would worry religious families more.

Interestingly my children are more shocked by ‘rubbish’ and ‘stupid’ than ‘shit’ because we as a family have given the words more power, although I do try and distinguish between saying ‘that shot was rubbish’ and ‘you’re rubbish’. I’m not even going to discuss the reaction I got from nursery when my son repeated my stressed-out-end-of-tether phrase ‘shut up!’ to another child. Let’s say they would have been less disapproving if he’d said f-off. Maybe.

Swearing, after all, is all about shock value. You only had to see my unfortunate and accidental (and instantly-regretted) reaction when my daughter mispronounced ‘can’t’ during a recent reading session. Having to explain why even Mummy wouldn’t use that word probably gave her the ultimate weapon against me. But I digress.

Some level of exclamation is needed when writing, to show emotion and make dialogue sound realistic. Unfortunately I don’t yet have Tweens, so I don’t know what they say when they’re upset/shocked/scared/angry. And I’m sure what they say to each other isn’t what their parents want to see them reading in a children’s novel.

Scouring several websites this morning, it seems the safest thing to do is to make up your own swear words. But how to do so without sounding twee? In Elizabeth Kay’s lovely book, Ice Feathers, she uses phrases like ‘for the Wind’s sake’ and ‘flapping’. Unfortunately they make me think of all the phrases I hear on Cbeebies like ‘galloping guinea pigs’ and ‘flapperty flippers’, ‘jumping jellyfish’, or, my favourite, ‘Well, I’ll be a sea monkey’s uncle.’

I think I will use foodie words for my male protagonist, as he loves cooking. Things like ‘fried tomatoes’, ‘pancakes and crepes’ and possibly ‘shiitake mushrooms’ although apparently that’s from a Spy Kids movie and I don’t want plagiarism issues. My female lead is a fairy and lives in the woods, so phrases like ‘eggshells’ and ‘creeping caterpillars’ might work. Is ‘bird poo’ too much? I’m sure I’ve borrowed books from the library for under fives that have the words poo and pants. Does it become unacceptable if Mummy isn’t reading it?

Who knew writing for children was so much harder than writing for adults, especially when you’ve had a colourful upbringing. Well, me actually. But it will be worth the effort I hope!

What are your favourite non-swearing cuss words? What do you let your children say and not say?

Related Articles:

Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog: Danika Dinsmore ~ Tropes & Tips for Middle Grade Fiction Writers

From the Mixed-Up Files… Of Middle Grade Authors: Is it Okay to Curse in MG Books

AbsoluteWrite: Acceptable Swear Words for Children?

Back To Work… I Hope

Partners in Fun

Partners in Fun

It’s 6.50am on Wednesday morning. Not just any Wednesday, but my first day without children in seventeen days. In two hours, after the chaos of the school run, dropping reluctant (and probably tearful) children at school and nursery, I can finally get back to my work in progress. And my mind is blank.

I’ve been reading like mad these last two weeks, to keep my writer’s brain active, in between trips to the park, scraping up sand and dishing out snacks. But still I can barely remember how to write, the ideas are all gone and I haven’t a clue what my WIP is about.

It doesn’t help that I have to give a progress report to my Doctor at 10am on how the medication is working. I think I can say ‘fine’, given that we’ve survived the holidays still smiling (more or less!)

Actually, the kids have been amazing. Thanks to two weeks of incredible weather (for England, especially in April), they’ve played together almost non stop, with few arguments. It has made me so proud to watch and listen to them co-operating and scheming. Maybe the long vacation won’t be so awful (provided it doesn’t rain all summer…)

And on a positive note, I re-read the first chapter of Class Act and was quietly impressed, if I’m allowed to say that of my own novel. I’m going to select an editor this week, which is exciting. There are only four and a half weeks until half term, when we’re away visiting rellies in Italy, so I need to crack on and find some inspiration from somewhere. Pass the coffee!

All Quiet on the Blogging Front

Busy busy...

Busy busy…

This is just a quick note to explain my silence on the blog recently and to say that normal service will hopefully resume in a week or two.

This week I’ve been concentrating on drafting my children’s book (working title George and the Arch, but that will change!) I’m around a third through, at 22,000 words, and have realised that writing a first draft uses ALL my energy and inspiration.

My daughter’s school teacher pointed out that there are only 11 full weeks of school left before the summer vacation, which means I have that much time to get George ready for the Chicken House competition AND get Class Act ready to publish (I haven’t even sourced an editor yet). Argh!

The reason for my silence over the next two weeks (more specifically the next four days) is that the children are on their Easter Holidays. In four hours the children and I will drive to Skegness to stay in a static caravan for the week with my good friend and her two children. I’m terrified. Please God don’t let it rain!

I’m looking forward to it too, but the idea of four days in a small box with four kids aged 2-6 does fill me with fear! Ear plugs and wine at the ready! 😉 I don’t even know if there will be internet…

So, enjoy the peace and quiet and I’ll hopefully have some new things to write about when I get back! Wish me luck.

How to Get Out of Writer’s Block

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

For me the most effective way through writer’s block is to become like my three-year-old and son ask questions. “Mummy, why?” is something he repeats ten times a minutes and, as infuriating as it is, it’s how he learns about the world around him. Most of my answers start with “I don’t know, maybe because…”, or, “Let’s google it”.

Working out what’s going on in a new novel is no different. The more questions you ask, the better the story gets. The harder you search for answers the further you get away from clichés and predictable plot lines. But when asking what happens next and why comes up with nothing, you can start questioning the characters instead. What are their motivations? What are they yearning for, even if they don’t know themselves? What are their greatest fears? What might happen to chuck them out their comfort zone.

Like many younger siblings, my protagonist George is looking for his own identity. He knows he isn’t smart like his sister or sporty and musical like his brother. He thinks his mum doesn’t love him, that he’s always useless. Only his dad understood him, and he vanished a year ago. The thing he likes to do most is kill aliens in his computer games. But he also likes to cook.

As the story progresses, George is discovering he’s fitter and smarter than he thinks he is, and his cooking ability is earning him respect. But, now that I’m at a dead end in the plot, I’ve been questioning him to see if he can help me work out what happens next. And he’s reminded me he loves computer games, which means he is observant and tactical. If the games he plays are like the Tomb Raider games I loved as a teenager, he has to work out puzzles and keep trying until something works. He must be tenacious and brave and good at lateral thinking.

So far his co-protagonist Merula has been leading them both and making the decisions. They are in her world and she has the answers. But he’s been challenging her thinking, questioning things she’s always believed in, and now they’re at an impasse. I think it’s time for George to come into his own and develop a clever strategy to take the action forward, using his game-playing skills.

Now if only I knew what games ten-year-old boys are playing these days I would feel on more solid ground. Any ideas?

Stuck and Sahara Dust

Under a dust cloud

Under a dust cloud

I got stuck on my WIP today, despite flying along this week. Yesterday was a 6,000 word day – my first for a year or so I should think – and I managed 2,500 in 90 minutes this morning. And then stuck. Not from writer’s block but from world-building block.

I don’t have a particularly active imagination – a funny thing to admit for a writer. Or, I should say, I don’t have a world-building imagination. I can do characters and dialogue, but scene building is tougher. When I wrote Dragon Wraiths the details of the world and its history kept me puzzled for weeks. I would wander round the fields walking the dog trying to figure out how it all worked; what happened to the body, how did the mind transfer to Taycee and so on. I’m not entirely sure I figured it all out but, shhh, don’t tell anyone!

And now I’m having the same problems with my children’s book. The world is a mishmash of all the books I’ve read recently – not intentionally I hasten to add. I never set out to steal an idea – I’m a pantser, I very much make it up as I go. But when I review what I’ve written, I can see the influences coming through my subconsciousness. A world covered in cloud? That’ll come from The Curse of The Mistwraith (Janny Wurts). A world like ours but different, where the animals can speak? That’s The Divide (Elizabeth Kay). A missing father? That could be The Extincts (Veronica Cossanteli) or To Be A Cat (Matt Haig). A bunch of boys who mess around? That’s probably from Johnny and The Bomb (Terry Pratchett).

We live in the purple bit...

We live in the purple bit…

But now we get to the nitty gritty of my story – where my characters are themselves, not parodies or plagiarisms – and I’m stuck. Merula’s a fairy who goes through blending when she’s twelve (or younger, haven’t nailed down ages yet), but what is blending? And when she’s banished she visits the wild ones, but who the hell are they? A baddy called Vulpini has cast the spell to cover the sky in cloud, but whatever for? And why have all the parents disappeared and where are they?

I love pantsing – I write to find out what happens next (as my husband often says) – but sometimes the drive in the dark is along a nice straight road and sometimes you sense there are cliffs and chasms either side. It’s the same road but one is easy and the other terrifying, even though you’re equally blind.

I tried my usual trick of wandering round the field with the dog, asking and trying to answer questions, but we’re currently sitting under a cloud of Sahara dust and the view is as hazy as my mind. With eyes full of grit and a throat clogged with dust, I returned home defeated. Maybe there’s a reason I write Chick Lit. World building? Give me one that’s already made, please.

I Am A Writer

(Temporary) cover for hubbie's book

(Temporary) cover for hubbie’s book

Yesterday I took the day away from my latest WIP to do something I hoped would cheer up my husband: I published his children’s book, Max & Shady, on Smashwords. I spent the first three hours designing a cover for it, because (unfortunately) the one I did for him before used a photo I couldn’t find the rights to. Important note: if you grab an image for inspiration, make sure you know where it’s from. Unsurprisingly, hubbie preferred his original cover (I do, too) but at least this one is bought and paid for.

Then I dug out the word document I formatted for print as a present a few years ago (turning someone’s first draft into a readable document is quite a task!) I’m ashamed to say it was full of typos, despite it being me who proof-read it the last time.

The rest of the day was spent fixing the big stuff (formatting for Smashwords and inserting punctuation inside the quotation marks). By the time he got home from work (having had to hush the kids a few times to sort out the niggly formatting issues that always seem to crop up) the book was live.

It breaks all the rules. It’s a first draft so shouldn’t be anywhere near the light of day. It’s only been proofread quickly, mostly by Word rather than a human being. It’s probably full of inconsistenices and it certainly has pages of info-dump. No matter. It served it’s purpose. Hubbie smiled.

Two things came out of it that should give both me and hubbie a boost of confidence. Firstly, when I was researching covers and categories, I couldn’t find much in the way of space adventure in the middle grade market: that makes his book much more stand out than mine. So, if he ever finds the energy to write some more, on top of being the bread winner who is pounced on by two small children as soon as he walks in the door after work, there might be a new niche he can fill.

Secondly, I re-read my work-in-progress, after editing Max & Shady, and realised just how much I have learned about writing in the last two or three years. I can see my progress from what I would have written as a first draft (much as hubbie’s is – fun but flawed) to my current work: not perfect, but oh so much better. I got quite excited reading it and found it pleasurable rather than excruciating, as reading my own writing normally is (a bit like hearing your own voice on tape). I understand things like avoiding info-dump, developing a character arc, climax and lots of other useful / essential things, mostly from reading blogs on writing. All that staring at the iPad seems to have had an effect. Who knows, I might actually, finally, be able to consider myself a writer!

Now I just need to work out who the bad guy is in my children’s book, what the plot and storyline are, and I can get on and finish it. I might be a better writer now, but I’m still pants at planning!

In Celebration of Pantsing

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Sorry I’ve been quiet this week. On top of drafting a new novel, which has been draining my energy, I had my daughter at home on Wednesday, because the teachers were on strike. Goodness knows how I’m going to write or blog in the school holidays: I think I might have to try and plan to have manuscripts with editors so I can take the time off without guilt and frustration.

On the plus side, I am really enjoying getting stuck into a new novel, especially one where I have no idea what’s going to happen next. With a Romance, there’s a certain inevitability to the plot, no matter how much you try and avoid cliches and tropes. Eventually boy meets girl, they have some problems, but they get together in the end.

With this Middle Grade fiction book I started only with a character and a rough idea that it would be a fantasy book, along the lines of The Divide – one of my favourite MG books in recent years. (The first book in the trilogy is currently free on kindle. Bargain!) The trick will be to avoid plagiarising Elizabeth Kay’s book and coming up with my own, original, story, while still learning from what I read.

The best bit about Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) is that you avoid the info-dump. The most tedious part of editing a first draft of a Romance novel for me is that I always info-dump in the first couple of chapters, so have to go back and rewrite whole sections. In fact, for both Baby Blues and Class Act, I ended up adding a bunch of chapters at the beginning of the manuscript, to turn the info-dump into action.

But when you know nothing more about a character than his name and the fact that he lives in a farmhouse with his mum and two older siblings, it’s much easier to drop in backstory as required and as it occurs to you. Then the second draft becomes about continuity.

I’ve just watched a top tips video by Barry Cunningham, the man who published Harry Potter, on how to write children’s stories. His first four tips (the fifth covered submissions) could be summarised as:

1. Put yourself back in the age group you are writing for: remember the excitement of that age [Ah crap, I can hardly remember being a child]
2. Include lots of details: The setting. What are they eating? What do they look like? Kids love detail [Oh dear, I’m not one for reading or writing lots of detail]
3. Planning: make sure you know when to introduce and remove characters, when your climaxes are, in order to keep the reader engaged [This is a blog post on Pantsing. Enough said]
4. Remember the importance of humour, especially in dialogue [My book is shaping up a bit dark and depressing. I’m screwed]

Oh well. Plenty of stuff to work on in the second draft! For now I’m enjoying finding out what happens next.

Random Reasearch and Character Naming

Photo inspiration

Photo inspiration

I started work on my Middle Grade novel this morning. Well, I wrote 300 words this time last year, but never got further with it than that. I only added 2,000 words today, but as I’m a Pantser, the beginning of a story is always slow. Once it gains momentum, and I have a clue what the story is about, it should hopefully pick up speed. The start of a new novel is always time consuming as well because there is an element of necessary research. I try not to jar the flow too much when I’m writing, as it’s easy to lose hours to internet research, but I do like to check facts as I go. I always have the iPad next to me for quick searches like “When do skylarks nest?” and “When are potatoes harvested?” (Both from this morning.)

I also like to have some photographs of my story setting to help me make it more three-dimensional. The 300 words I wrote last year were all dialogue, with no setting at all. If I don’t have something to prompt me, I do tend to only write dialogue and feelings. This story is set on a traditional small farm, starting in the kitchen, so I looked for a few images to help me. Once upon a time I would have searched until I found the perfect property, so I could steal all the photos, layout, floor maps, street view images, the works. But I’ve lost valuable hours and chunks of sanity to that task in the past, so now I look for general images and piece them all together into one page that I can have beside me when I’m working.

Character names made easy

Character names made easy

As this book will be fantasy, I wanted to come up with an easy way to generate names: I really struggle with character names and often find the same ones cropping up time and again (I have two Daniels as main roles in different manuscripts, for example, even though – or possibly because – I don’t know anyone called Daniel.)

I wanted quirky names for my ‘other world’ people, but ones still more or less easy to pronounce. I find, reading fantasy, that I get irritated if the names are too complicated.

Anyway I came up with the idea of using latin bird names, using a little pocket book that used to belong to my dad (that I think I’ve rescued from hubbie’s charity shop pile more than once!)

So far I have my female protagonist Merula, from Turdus Merula – Blackbird. Naevia, her friend, from Locustella Naevia – Grasshopper Warbler. Otus, from Asio Otus – Long-eared owl, and Alba, from Tyto Alba – Barn Owl. How easy is that? 🙂

I’m quite nervous starting something completely new, and in a new genre (middle grade fiction). It’s been two years since I wrote Dragon Wraiths, and I had such a strong sense of the story when I started it. This time I’m driven more by a desire to try my hand at the genre and hopefully write something my children might like to read before they’re twenty! It’s daunting and exciting at the same time. I know so much more than I did two years ago, and I write more self-consciously, having done a LOT of editing in that time. I don’t know if I can lose myself in a story and just write. Time will tell, I guess! In the meantime, I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and tapping out the words.

Blog Post Revisited: Using Life’s What Ifs

My Three Darlings

My Three Darlings

I finally sent a complete draft of Class Act to my fabulous Beta Reader yesterday, and found myself at a loose end. I know it needs more work but, quite frankly, I’m sick of the sight of it and am starting to doubt whether it even works as a story. Time for a change.

I want to start something new, rather than working on one of the three or four half-finished manuscripts I have on my laptop, courtesy of years of NaNoWriMo. But I’m a bit all chick-litted out, after Two-Hundred Steps Home and working on Class Act. So I got to thinking about other ideas I’ve had, and I remembered the Middle Grade Novel idea I had nearly a year ago. This is a bit on how it started.

A few days after writing that post, I wrote the one below. A little insight into where some of my writing ideas come from.

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Writing out some of the background for my new novel today I realised I was inadvertently writing a ‘what if’ about my own life, or one tiny aspect of my life. I think sometimes that’s what writers do. They use their words, their imaginations, to explore different lives they might have lived. Mine is a little thing that might have been huge.

Close Siblings

Close Siblings

I was late for my period this month: second month in a row. Now, we’re careful. We have two beautiful children and I’m in my late thirties. My first child was born at 37 weeks, the second at 35 weeks. My pediatrician friend said that a trend to premature babies could easily continue.

So, even if we wanted more children (which we don’t – only when I get occasionally broody) the risks are far too high. And I KNEW I wasn’t pregnant. I’m more likely to be menopausal, as early menopause runs in the family. But, still, you start putting two and two together and making five. I was tired, grumpy, teary and, above all, late.

The protagonist in Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes gets pregnant against the odds. These things happen. I worried. I read up about menopause at 2am on my phone. And, being me, I re-planned my future with a third child in it. I needed to be prepared, just in case. I worked out the age gap, when the third would start school. I decided it would be nice for my son to have a play mate when my daughter starts school in September. I tried to decide whether I’d prefer a boy or a girl. I’m a writer: I wove stories.

Drove hubbie nuts.

Then I decided I ought to actually get a test and part of me was actually a bit excited (damn you, breeding hormones). I didn’t need the test, as it turned out. As if just buying it was enough, I knew before I got home that it was no longer required. In a tiny way I felt as if I’d lost a baby, even though no baby existed. Because I had made the scary future so plausible.

I wasn’t going to talk about it on the blog – it seems to come under the ‘too much information’ category. Until I started writing out my character list for the new book this morning:

George: 11. Two siblings, Ben (14) and Susie (16). George suspects he wasn’t planned. His sister tells him their mother used to say ‘I’ve only got two hands’ or ‘one of each, job done’. George feels unwanted and an outsider. Susie is academic, Ben is musical. They’re close. George likes football and computer games and being lazy.

My Little Bean

My Little Bean

I realised, half way through writing it, that George is my imaginary third child. The things I worried about at 2am were all there: that any other children born into our family would feel left out because my two are so close in age; that my eldest would remember me saying ‘one of each, job done’; that a third child would feel alienated, like my Uncle and my Mum – both the last of three kids.

The loss of my imaginary child, that hurt for a day, doesn’t hurt so much now. When I see the kids needing another play mate I do wish I had started my family earlier, so more children was a possibility. But now I can write them in to existence instead.

So much cheaper and no need for cots, bottles, stretch marks, swollen ankles and endless dirty nappies. Hurrah.

Self-Sabotage: 2013 365 Challenge #348

Origami Trees became giant snowflakes

Origami Trees became giant snowflakes

Why are Humans prone to self-sabotage? Or is it just me (and my husband!)? You know what I mean: picking at that dry skin on the edge of your nail, even though it’s going to hurt like anything and you KNOW it’s going to hurt.

Or being unable to sleep the night before an important meeting or exam, and staring at the ceiling stressing. Or (as was me this morning) waking up at 3.45am with a head buzzing with stuff and just not being able to get back to sleep. Even though both kids slept past 6am for the first time in weeks.

It always happens when I get anxious or overwhelmed and my brain is running at a hundred miles an hour in ten different directions. Christmas, Claire and now my car (which appears to be suffering from a terminal illness) are all taking up headspace. Little things like decorating a Christmas jumper for my daughter, or writing Christmas cards before the last posting date, run round in my head like escaped guinea pigs: irritating and hard to catch and cage.

So, on a day when I really needed to be productive, to write tomorrow’s post (we have hair cuts and birthday parties to fill our Saturday) I was utterly spaced, having finally crept downstairs at half five (desperately trying not to wake my daughter because I’d never live that down!) I tried to clear other irritants – messy house, buying final gifts – and hope that there would be time in the morning to get back to Claire and Conor, Kim and Helena.

My origami tree

My origami tree

But, again this morning, I was awake at 3.30am. Husband too. He went down to sleep on the sofa (although he didn’t sleep) and I lay in bed, with my brain like a toddler in a toy shop, running this way and that. Instead of trying to think through my next Claire post, my brain did this:

“I’d like some different lights in the garden this year. But I don’t want coloured lights as they won’t really go with our current white lights. A polar bear on the lawn would be fantastic. But they’re so expensive and I’ve already blown the budget this year. Oh yes, my step-dad’s brother made one out of willow. I could make one. I wonder where I could get some willow from.”

And before you know it, instead of writing posts or wrapping presents, I’m trying to work out how to make a bloomin’ polar bear. It happened with the Elf on the Shelf (after scouring the shops for two hours, instead of writing, and not finding an elf I thankfully gave up on that idea.)

And again, with my daughter’s Christmas party this week. I had agreed to print out some colouring sheets to keep the kids occupied. So, being the master of overkill, I had the bright idea of taking a craft activity for the older ones as well. A quick search of Pinterest revealed origami trees and before you could say “self-sabotage queen” I found myself spending an hour making trees, while my son watched TV, instead of doing something useful like cleaning. When we got to the party the trees were too hard to do, and they all became giant green snowflakes.

Production line making twelve trees

Production line making twelve trees

I’m like this all the time, particularly with writing projects. Signing up for a Children’s Book writing course, starting yet another NaNoWriMo novel, illustrating a book for my son, wanting to enter the Mslexia Chidlren’s Novel competition.

The daily blog has thankfully made most of these other ideas unworkable, but I dread to think what I’ll be like next year without it. There are just so many creative things I want to do, and tedious boring humdrum life gets in the way. To compensate, my brain seems to list all the possibilities and tell me they’re all doable. Now.

But, just like the toddler in the toy shop, more toys doesn’t mean more fun. There’s exponentially more pleasure to be had with one favourite toy, loved and cherished, than a room full of tat. (Which also puts pressure on my beleaguered brain to make sure my children get the perfect toys at Christmas, but that’s a whole other level of self-sabotage!) Just as there is exponentially more satisfaction (and use) in one finished project rather than fifty half done.

I don’t know what the answer is. If I had a boss it would be simple: I’d make them prioritise my to-do list and try to be good. Being my own boss? It comes down to a discipline I don’t have. And wanting to make polar bears. Sigh. Is it time for bed, yet?

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Claire chewed her thumbnail and tried to concentrate on the screen in front of her. Attempting to write was proving futile, and she shut the laptop with a snap. Outside, the sun beamed down on the terrace and she let it lure her from the lounge. She felt fidgety and restless and longed to go down to the beach for a run.

After a blissful few days alone, wandering around the north coast of Devon, the weekend had finally arrived, bringing with it the anticipated arrival of her guests. Conor had texted to say he’d be there early evening. She hadn’t heard from Kim and her sister, but assumed they were due around the same time.

This is going to be a train wreck. What was I thinking? I should have gone to Kim’s house; at least I could have chatted with her mother or hidden in the garden. As their guest, I could do what I liked. Now they’re coming to see me, I’ll have to entertain them.

She leaned on the railing and looked out over Kipling Tor, shimmering blue in the hazy distance. If she left now, she could be walking up there in twenty minutes, enjoying the view of Lundy Island and the Bristol Channel. She’d done it at least once a day during her stay, and her feet could probably get there without her guidance.

Conor might just forgive me for not being here when he arrives, but somehow I doubt Kim will. She doesn’t seem to be in a forgiving mood these days.

Wishing she had a cool glass of gin and tonic in her hand, Claire perched on a seat and thought about her friendship with Kim. It wasn’t something she’d dwelt on before. It was a given, like having Ruth and Robert for siblings, or working at AJC. In the past few months all those things had shifted. Ruth and Robert weren’t the people she thought they were: her relationship with Ruth was much closer than it had been in years, while she wasn’t sure she’d cross the road to give Robert the time of day.

Where did that leave Kim? What did it mean to be friends, anyway, when you had known someone so long? Were they friends out of habit or to keep alive memories of childhood that only they shared. Until this year, they hadn’t been that close: catching up when Claire was in town, swapping stories of men and jobs while drinking a few bevvies.

Then Kim had got pregnant and everything had changed. Claire wondered if it was the first time Kim realised she didn’t have any close friends: only Jeff, and her fellow thespians.

A bit like me, really, discovering my work colleagues were more enemies than mates, and that Michael wanted some romanticised version of me.

She thought about the people she’d met during her travels: Josh, Maggie, Bethan. People she had little in common with, except the urge to be on the move. In her heart they felt more like friends than Kim did. The realisation hit her like a cold wave, and she gasped for air.

Her mouth felt dry as she realised she didn’t really want to be friends with Kim anymore. It felt like all give and no get. Kim needed her, she understood that. She’d had the most awful year; the ruckus at the wedding that Claire had inadvertently caused, losing the baby, depression and attempted suicide. Claire couldn’t leave her now but she didn’t know how to be the kind of friend Kim needed.

And what about me? I can’t talk about Conor; Kim sees it as some office fling. Maybe it is, but what if it isn’t. We’re not eighteen anymore. Claire rested her head against the railing and closed her eyes.

She started awake as something brushed her face. With hammering heart she opened her eyes, and saw Conor crouched next to her chair.

“Hello, sleepy head.” The smile he gave her made her catch her breath. She grinned back.

“Sorry, I must have nodded off. Have you been there long?”

He looked guilty. “A few minutes. You look adorable asleep, snuffling like a kitten.”

Blood rushed to Claire’s face and she covered her cheeks with her hands. “I was snoring? Really? God, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s okay. I already know you snore.” He grinned and she took a playful swipe at his arm.

“I do not snore. Not like you do.”

They fell still, suddenly, and Conor leant forwards to kiss her. She let herself sink into the embrace and, for a moment, the hurried voices in her head fell mute.

“Aw, look at the lovers. Why don’t you guys get a room?” Kim’s voice cut through their embrace. Claire pulled away and Conor rose languidly to his feet.

“Hello, Kim, nice to see you again. You’re looking well.” Conor was at his urbane best, holding his hand out for Kim to shake. Claire was looking at Kim’s face and caught a flicker of a frown cross her features before she flashed her teeth and shook the outstretched hand.

“You’ve been busy since I met you last,” she said archly. Claire winced at the confrontational tone, wondering what Kim’s problem was. With a sick feeling in her stomach, she wondered if it was too late to run away.

“I don’t think you’ve met my sister, Helena,” Kim was saying. She turned and gestured for her sister to come forward.

Claire hadn’t seen Kim’s older sister in a long time, but she hadn’t changed. She was still tall and willowy, with long straight golden hair. The only difference was the round stomach stretching her designer top. With a demure smile and glowing skin, she looked like a model in a maternity magazine.

Poor Kim.

Claire’s irritation vanished as she realised how hard it must be for her friend. She’d always competed with her sister, who was the more financially successful and, some argued, the more attractive of the two. Now she was also the one who could carry a child, when Kim couldn’t.

While Conor chatted to Helena about Hong Kong and the journey down from her parents’ house, Claire sidled up to Kim and put her arm around her.

“How are you holding up?” she whispered.

“I haven’t murdered her in her sleep, if that’s what you mean.” Kim’s voice was somewhere between angry and rueful. Claire caught a glimmer of her old friend, the one she used to have fun with, before life became complicated.

“Look at it this way: she’ll have saggy boobs and stretch marks, and will look fifty by the time she’s thirty five.”

Kim giggled and put her arm around Claire, pulling her close. “Thanks, I needed that.”

***