Holidays are Great but I Love My Job

We had the beach to ourselves

We had the beach to ourselves

We got back from a wonderful week in Italy yesterday, happy and exhausted (and a little sunburnt in my case after forgetting to get hubbie to put cream on my back.) I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours unpacking, washing, ironing, cooking and trying to survive the tantrums of four shattered people.

The weather was glorious for most of our week – unlike back in the UK where they suffered days of torrential rain. The dog came back from kennels a little rounder than she went, instead of the kilos lighter she usually is after a week of long walks and no table scraps. I’m guessing there weren’t many opportunities to walk dogs in that weather.

Not that we didn’t get any rain. Our second day on the beach saw us sheltered in the nearest cafe when the heavens opened for an hour. There is something rather cool about sipping a cappuccino in twenty degrees heat watching the soft sand getting pounded and water flooding across the patio because the drainpipes empty onto it. It left the sand with the texture of a wool carpet.

The downpour

The downpour

Our trips to Italy are family visits rather than holidays and we spent plenty of time with aunts and cousins. The children and I don’t speak Italian, so it’s always rather chaotic and overwhelming, although lovely and heartwarming. With our family spread all over the world it always means a lot to catch up with them and spend time together.

That said, we were glad to come home to our own beds. The children find it hard staying in an apartment, unable to go outside whenever they want and constantly being told to be quiet. I feel trapped, too, because I can’t drive the hire car and it terrifies me not being able to talk to the locals. Plus the apartment is in town and rather noisy! I haven’t slept properly for a week.

Mind you, coming back to a foot-high lawn and a messy house, I can now appreciate the beauty of living in a small flat and spending all the time at the beach!

Beach babies

Beach babies

The best part about being home for me is being able to get back to work. While hubbie and the kids are dragging their heels and not wanting the holiday to end, Monday morning can’t come soon enough for me. The only difficulty is choosing between working on Class Act or my kids’ book.

I’ve opted for the latter and have printed out the manuscript in readiness. I spent some of the holiday reading middle grade fiction (after re-reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a fantastic book,) and I can see all the things that are so wrong with my Alfie book. Not that I think I can fix them – I’m still not sure Middle Grade is my genre – but I’m excited to try.

Me, excited about editing? How did that happen? I used to hate it. I still don’t feel I know what I’m doing. But already having sourced an editor has made a difference. I know what she thought was wrong with my sample and so I know what I’m looking for in my redraft. It’s like writing an essay for a university tutor, and that’s something I’ve had lots of experience doing. I used to love writing essays. (I know, I’m a freak!)

Of course I’ll probably end up sleeping instead of working tomorrow – the danger of working from home! Best work in the coffee shop. Talking of which, it’s definitely time for bed! Night night.

Venice, Bologna, Family and 2013 365 Challenge #8

Venice from the Grand Canal on our flying visit

Venice from the Grand Canal on our flying visit

Hurrah we’re home. We had a fantastic weekend away in Italy catching up with my husband’s Italian family, meeting the newest member at his Baptism, and eating far too much gorgeous cheese.

We called in at Venice on the way back to the airport (having flown into Veneza Treviso because it was cheaper than flying straight to Bologna) and, as you can see from the photo, we got to see some great bits of the amazing city in our (very) short visit.

Chasing Pigeons in San Marco

Chasing Pigeons in San Marco

We only had an hour so we caught a boat along the Grand Canal, then followed the advice of a local and took a wander through the narrow streets to the San Marco Piazza. It’s not a pushchair friendly city but we coped and the kids had great fun running around chasing pigeons. Thankfully that also meant they slept most of the way home. They were amazing the whole trip and it was a delight to travel with them.

It was a challenge to get up and write my installment this morning. My gorgeous husband is watching Mary Poppins with the kids while I’m in the kitchen tapping away. We’re meant to be at a coffee morning with my daughter’s baby group so today’s post might be a little rough around the edges! More tomorrow.

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Claire peered through the gloom, trying to distinguish bodies from furniture. They were in the Kaz Bar in Tiger Tiger for her leaving drinks. Molly, Polly and Sally were huddled together in a booth, giggling. One or other of them occasionally glanced in Claire’s direction and giggled louder.

I bet they’re laughing about the stupid gift Julia bought with my farewell collection. A 75-litre rucksack and a Maglite torch. Honestly, it’s not like I’m going hiking in the Andes. Actually it’s not like I’m really leaving at all.

Claire thought back to her farewell presentation that afternoon. She had been quite shocked to look up from her desk to see the entire office gathered outside her glass door. Carl had pushed through the crowd and beckoned her out into the centre, like the sacrifice in some ancient ritual. He’d signalled for quiet before launching into a speech about how Claire would be missed, how they wished her well and looked forward to her blog posts and Facebook status updates. When Julia had dragged out the gift and dumped it at Claire’s feet Carl’s grin couldn’t have been wider if he’d been a hyena.

“It won’t be wise to turn up in a hostel with Louis Vuitton luggage my dear. They’ll have you down as a snob before you can ask the way to the bidet. That’s if they don’t just steal it and sell it on eBay. The whole point is to blend.”  And he’d grinned again, like it was all a big joke.

Well it isn’t a joke. Claire looked around the bar at all the people who had come to say goodbye. They will miss me, even if they don’t know it yet. And I will have the last laugh when I’m sitting on a beach in the Maldives while they’re doing Year End and worrying about the next mobile phone ad campaign.

“Get you a drink Claire?”

Claire looked up to see Steve lounging against a pillar near to where she was standing. She realised her hands were empty and was mortified to be caught standing alone and without a drink at her own leaving do.

“That’s fine Steve, someone’s getting me one. I’m just heading to the ladies.” She shone him her widest grin and tried not to run, which wasn’t advisable anyway in her towering heels. I guess I should be glad they didn’t buy me hiking boots or something similarly awful, Claire thought as she tip-tapped to the toilets and shuffled into a cubicle. There was a conversation going on in the next stall and Claire couldn’t help but listen to the slurred words.

“I give her two weeks. She has no idea what they’ve set her up to. I went travelling in Australia and alright the hostels here are probably cleaner and less crowded – I mean, who wants to travel around England for Pete’s sake – but it’s still going to be messy, noisy and Common. Miss La-di-dah will last a day before she’s booking a private room and I know the budget they’ve given her. Private rooms aren’t an option. Couldn’t happen to a nicer person in my view.”

Claire felt her face grow hot. It wasn’t hard to distinguish Julia’s drunken voice booming through the wall. Well, that’s just Julia, I know she hates me. When the next voice spoke Claire felt herself go completely still.

“You’re so right, Jules. Silly cow. Thinks she’s better than all of us because she went to some posh school and her family are loaded. Her sister can’t keep a fella and her brother’s a stuck up dick. No wonder she has nothing to do with them. Good riddance I say, I hope she doesn’t come back.”

Claire recognised the voice. It was Susannah, her best friend from Repro. Claire felt tears itch at the corners of her eyes, causing eye-liner to leak in and make them sting. She sat motionless while she heard the toilet flush. The two girls staggered out of the cubicle, laughing and shushing each other. As the room fell silent, apart from the throbbing bass of music coming through the wall, Claire leant her head against the partition and fought the tears. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to floated into her head, causing a wry smile to twist her lips.

At least I know what they really think, silly bitches.

She pulled herself to her feet, pushed her shoulders back, and strode from the room. Out of the corner of her eye she was aware of Julia and Susannah watching her leave the ladies shortly after them. She sensed rather than saw the consternation on their faces and gained some pleasure from it. Once she had reached the bar Claire ordered a triple gin and diet tonic and turned to face the room. She spotted Mike from Accounts sitting on a Moroccan pouf by himself in the corner and headed over to take a seat next to him. He looked up as she approached and a mixture of confusion and delight crossed his face.

“So, Mike, how are things in Accounts?” Claire settled in and turned on her best charm offensive, determined to enjoy her party if it cost her everything she had.

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A Baptism and the 2013 365 Challenge #6

The character matrix I use to keep track of my creations

The character matrix I use to keep track of my creations

Today I am at a Baptism in Bologna, Italy, with all my husband’s family, so this post was scheduled on Friday when I was meant to be packing (thank you husband!). As you’re reading this I am mostly wishing I had worked harder at learning Italian (I’m the only family member apart from the kids who doesn’t speak Italian. I can just about manage hello, how are you in Italian, despite many purchases of teach-yourself-Italian CDs).

My picture today is of my character matrix. (I borrowed the template from a blog but my WordPress reader is playing up so I’m afraid I can’t say who just now.) Usually I fill one of these out about halfway through a first draft, once I have a good idea of all my main characters and some interesting facts about them.

Because I need to ensure consistency in my blog posts for this 365 Challenge, I decided to figure some of it out upfront (like names, ages, physical appearance). I find it hard to imagine details about characters until I have written in their voice for a while. Characters don’t come to me fully formed. It’s more like meeting people in real life: when you first come across them you have a bunch of preconceived ideas about who they are based on past experience or stereotypes. As you spend time with them those ideas are either proved or disproved. That’s part of the fun of writing for me – finding out who my characters are. They always shock me.

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“Auntie Claire! Mummy said you were coming to stay but I didn’t believe it.” A whirl of blonde hair and beads threw itself at Claire’s legs and hugged tight, almost tilting her to the ground. Claire resisted the urge to shake her off  like an unwanted dog and waited for the shrieking to stop.

“Hello Claire,” Ruth greeted her sister as she came to the door. The two women air-kissed, leaning over the child still wrapped around Claire’s legs. “Is that a new perfume, it’s very exotic.” Ruth sniffed the air and Claire could tell she really wanted to say it was awful, but as Claire was there to do a huge favour she had no choice but to be nice.

“Yes, Michael bought it for me,” Claire said tightly, before gently removing Sky from her legs so she could walk down the corridor to the kitchen-diner.

“How is Michael?” Ruth asked over her shoulder. Claire wondered if her sister had been so caught up in her own misery she had missed the status updates on Facebook. Or is it that she just can’t keep the maliciousness at bay for five minutes?

“We broke up.”

“Oh, did you? I’m sorry to hear that. He was very charming. Not that we saw much of him.”

Oh, here we go.

As if sensing her sister’s reaction, Ruth didn’t continue. Instead she pulled Sky away from where she hung off Claire’s arm and smiled brightly at her sister. “Tea?”

“Earl Grey please, if you have it?”

“No, only Tetley I’m afraid. Or I have Nescafe?”

Claire shuddered then shook her head. “A glass of water would be lovely, thank you.”

Ruth ran water from the kitchen tap into a plastic Disney Princesses beaker and handed it to Claire, who had sat down at the table. Ruth then poured herself more treacle-coloured tea from a spotty-red teapot and sat opposite her.

“Mum will be here shortly. I’m not supposed to drive, so Mum’s taking me. They’ll do the tests, keep me in overnight for observations, then Mum will come and get me in the morning. I’ll be back by lunchtime tomorrow.”

“Where are you going exactly? Peterborough General?”

“No, I’m still covered by Mum and Dad’s health insurance so I’m going private. It was going to be weeks before they could get me an appointment with the NHS.”

Silence filled the kitchen, broken only by the sound of Sky munching grapes. Claire cupped her hands around the bright pink cup and stared at the reflections in her untouched water. It was always like this with Ruth. Unless she was ranting about the latest injustice or gushing over some bloke she’d snogged they didn’t have much to say to each other.

“How’s work?”

Claire looked up, surprised at the question. “Fine. I have a new assignment.”

“Oh, something interesting?”

“Yes, it could be. I guess. It’s for Coca Cola.”

The spark of interest in Ruth’s eyes died. “Disgusting teeth-rotting stuff. I can’t believe you endorse evil brands like that.”

There didn’t seem any way to respond to the comment without starting a row. Sky was now slurping milk through a straw but she looked up and surveyed the two sisters. Catching her gaze, Claire was surprised at how much comprehension there was in her niece’s eyes. She realised she hadn’t seen her niece in over a year. Claire hadn’t joined her family for Christmas, which meant it was the Christmas before that she last saw Sky.

“Miss Hawkins says Coca Cola was invented by a chemist.”

Claire didn’t know what to say to the non sequitur. It no longer seemed possible to brush the girl off with That’s nice and a smile.

“What else have you learned at school?” She said instead.

“If two pieces of metal touch each other in space they get stuck together.”

Claire stared at Sky, bereft of words. Where did that come from? I remember learning completely useless facts in school, but that seems a bit technical for a six-year-old. She was still scrabbling for a response when the front door opened and she heard the familiar swish of her mother’s floor-length wool coat sweep the laminate flooring.

“You’re here then,” her mother said as she came into the kitchen. Claire turned to look at her, trying to read behind the words.

“Yes, the traffic was surprisingly light, I made good time.”

“Right. Well, we’d best be off Ruth. Have you told Claire where everything is, when Sky has her tea and when to put her to bed?”

“Won’t you stop for a cup of tea?” Ruth looked up at her mother, who was still wearing her winter coat. “We’re not due at the hospital for over an hour. Claire’s only just arrived.”

“We don’t want to be late.”

Ruth looked apologetically at her sister, as if their mother’s rudeness was somehow her fault. She handed her sister a handwritten sheet of paper. “I’ve written it all down, but if you have any problems you can ring Dad.”

“Much good that will do you. Your Father’s working this week, otherwise he would have taken Sky.”

“I thought Dad retired.” Claire smiled at her mother, to show that she was making a light-hearted comment. Her Dad had retired the year before, but he was finding it hard to let go. He had taken on various non-exec roles that seemed to take up more of his time than his full-time job as Chief Financial Officer.

“Your father works harder than all of you,” was all her Mum said, before turning to face the corridor. “Come on Ruth.”

Sky got down from the table and ran to give her Grandmother a cuddle. “Bye bye Nana, see you tomorrow. Auntie Claire and I are going to have so much fun.”

“Bye bye poppet. You be good for your Auntie Claire.”

Claire remained seated at the table as her sister bent to kiss her cheek, gave her daughter a huge hug, and scurried off down the corridor after their mother. Sky came over and leant against Claire, putting her arms around her neck. As the front door clicked shut Sky’s face widened into a broad grin.

“I’m so glad you’re here Auntie. I want you to show me how to paint my nails and my lips and all the things Mummy doesn’t let me do.” Her clear blue eyes sparkled in a way that promised trouble.

Claire was conscious of a strong desire to run down the corridor after her mother and sister, to tell them she would drive Ruth to the hospital. Instead she looked down into the face gazing mischievously up at her and forced out a smile.

“Okay, Sky. Let’s have some fun.”

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