Sleety, Stormy Christmas 2013 365 Challenge #358

Braving the rain on the barrel train

Braving the rain on the barrel train

I promised hubbie that I’d take the children to one of our regular Farm places today, so he could have some time to get things done and look at assembling their Christmas pressie (a trampoline: only it turns out some important bolts are missing. Eek).

Unfortunately a storm has hit the UK and the weather is just plain awful. We do try not to teach the children about good weather and bad weather (the proper line being ‘good clothing’ or ‘the wrong clothing’) so I duly dressed them in wellies and waterproofs and off we went.

But my god it was miserable. Freezing cold with sideways sleety rain and a wind that could easily blow Dorothy’s house out of Kansas. Thankfully there were lots of Christmas events on, most of which were under cover, so we survived. The nativity was my favourite: they selected children from the audience, dressed them in costumes, and fed them their lines, while the grown ups sang carols. It was charming.

Jumping in Car Park Puddles

Jumping in Car Park Puddles

Apparently they normally parade animals across the front too, but I guess it was too busy or wet today. We did get to see the 24-year-old highland cow, though, sheltering in the barn, nice and warm. Which was more than could be said for the ponies, out in the field drenched to the skin.

The children still wanted their pony rides, so we battled our way to their field and I stood getting drenched while they had their trips round. Mummy needs to buy some waterproof trousers!

We fitted in a quick trip to the play barn, a ride on the barrel train in the rain, and a visit to the coffee shop where the children refused to eat their ice cream because they didn’t have chocolate, only strawberry. Of course the highlight of the day was jumping in the puddles in the car park! I’m not sure they used up much energy, although Mummy was pretty exhausted, but at least they had plenty of fresh air!

It doesn’t feel very Christmassy with the awful stormy weather (not to mention what it’s doing to our Sky reception!) and I really feel for anyone having to cross the country to visit relatives. We are fortunate that ours are two miles down the road. Whatever you’re doing this holiday, whether you’re home or away, stay safe, and Happy Christmas Eve!

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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 drove down the tree-lined road, following the SatNav, unable to see anything past the tunnel of green. A spark of excitement built in her chest and she tried to ignore it, afraid of what it might mean.

Eventually the woodland thinned and the computerised voice announced her arrival. To begin with she couldn’t see the entrance, but further down the road she spied a discreet sign at the head of a lane. She turned in and bumped down the pitted track towards the building. More trees concealed the view until she came out into a clearing and gasped.

Ahead was a sprawling mansion, all windows and chimneys, surrounded by exotic trees and endless rolling parkland. It looked more like a National Trust property than a children’s activity centre.

As she parked the car, Claire wondered if she’d come to the wrong place. With her heart in her throat, and half expecting to be accosted for trespassing, she climbed out and went in search of Timothy.

The place was eerily silent. Claire had imagined it would be bustling with people. If not children, then staff or even workmen finishing the renovations. Convinced now that she had come to the wrong building, she was about to retreat back to her car when she heard a voice.

“Halloo!”

Searching round for the source, she heard the cry again and looked up. She could just make out someone waving at her from a first story window. Shielding her eyes against the sun, she realised it was a middle-aged man and assumed it must be the elusive Timothy.

“Don’t run away. I’ll be right down!”

The head disappeared and she waited, looking around her in bemusement. Everywhere she looked was green. Ivy climbed the white walls of the house and wrapped around the chimneys. Held back by low stone borders, flowers and bushes provided a riot of life and colour. Behind the house she could see an immaculate lawn stretching down to the sea, which shone brilliant blue against the sky. It was heaven.

Before Claire could begin to imagine living and working in such an idyllic spot, the owner appeared before her, holding out his hand. He was a tall man, lithe, with hair that might once have been chestnut but was now sprinkled with grey. The lines at the corners of his eyes spoke of a life full of laughter.

“Hello, you must be Claire. How marvellous to meet you. Did you find us okay?”

Claire shook the offered hand and returned the smile. “Yes, no problem. The Sat Nav brought me right here. What a gorgeous place.” She looked around, not believing what her eyes showed her.

“Yes, isn’t it? I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.” He turned and led the way into the building. “You find us on a quiet day,” he called over his shoulder. “The other staff are at a first aid course, ready for when we open in September. My goodness, that’s next week.” He laughed as if he couldn’t quite believe it. “There are eight of us in total,” he continued, “but I expect that number to increase once we start getting bookings.”

Inside was equally magnificent. Dark wood panelling ran around the walls, leading to a wide staircase that invited you to explore upstairs. Deep pink carpets ran throughout, giving the place an air of an old hotel. Timothy led her through a large social room full of faded sofas and long benches, with patio doors that opened onto the garden, until they came to the kitchen.

“Tea?” he asked, heading to one of the cupboards.

“Yes, please.” Claire sat near the window and looked out at the view. After a few moments, Timothy walked over with a laden tray.

“Do help yourself to banana bread or biscuits. Gemma’s our chef; she’s been trying out new recipes. Part of our aim here will be to send the children home well fed as well as well entertained.” He stopped and seemed to realise he’d jumped into the middle of their conversation. “My apologies, I should ask, how much has Maggie informed you of what we hope to do here?”

“Only that you’re opening an activity centre for disadvantaged children.” Claire selected a piece of cake and nibbled at it.

“Yes, that’s it precisely. Somewhere inner city children can come and breathe the air, try their hand at some outdoor pursuits and, as I mentioned, get some healthy food into the bargain.”

“It sounds wonderful, although it’s a long way for the children to come?”

“Indeed it is, but I believe that’s an element of the experience. A trip overland by coach, seeing the sights of the country along the way – or the motorways at least –” he smiled ruefully, “–is part of the journey. A widening of their world, as it were.”

Claire felt slightly uncomfortable at his words. His motives were admirable, but she wondered if it was all a bit patronising. Inner city children were just children after all. It felt a bit like alms to the poor.

But what do I know? I have no experience of what it must be like growing up in a city and perhaps never seeing the countryside or the sea. Who wouldn’t want their child to be able to come here and experience this?

“And where do I come in?” She looked into Timothy’s eager expression and could understand why perhaps they needed some business help.

“Maggie tells me you used to work in marketing? We have a competent manager running the place –”

Claire quickly revised her misconception and continued to listen

“–but she’s the first to admit that sales and marketing are not her strengths. We want to start slow, build up our experience and our reputation, but we need someone to get in contact with schools, find us some children willing to be our guinea pigs.”

Some of Claire’s distaste for a sales role must have showed on her face, because Timothy’s expression dropped ludicrously.

“You’re not keen? Ah what a shame, but thank you for coming to see me at least. We don’t often get visitors.”

Claire found herself saying, “I just need to know more about it all. Maybe if I could meet the rest of the staff? I’m not a sales person, that’s all. There’s a big difference between marketing and sales.”

“Is there?” Timothy raised his eyebrows. “You see, I really do know nothing about it.”

“Maggie also mentioned I’d be employed as an instructor, rather than specifically for the marketing. I’m afraid I don’t have any skills in that area.”

“But you like children, yes? That is really all one needs to begin with. We can send you on the training courses for the rest.”

Words of denial were in her mouth, when Claire really thought about the question. Did she like spending time with children? She thought back over her trips with Sky, and Alex and Jack, and thought maybe it wasn’t so bad. And if it meant getting to live in such a beautiful location, with views over the sea and endless space, it was worth a try.

“I have a niece and two nephews,” she said by way of explanation. “They’ve been travelling with me on and off this summer. I wouldn’t say I was qualified, but I have enjoyed their company.”

“Splendid. Well, all that remains is for me to offer you a room for the night, and to say I hope you will join us for dinner so that you may meet the rest of the staff. We’re rather like a family here and it would be marvellous if you would consider becoming a member.”

He stood and indicated for Claire to follow him from the room. Her thoughts scurried around her head like mice as she tried to process the interview, if that was what it could be called. Her sensible brain told her to get out while she could, reminding her that she didn’t like her own family and wasn’t in search of a new one. But some instinct kept her following Timothy to the dorm rooms. Something told her this just could be her next big adventure.

***

Christmas Biscuits: 2013 365 Challenge #357

Christmas biscuits

Christmas biscuits

The next few days are surely about survival. How do you keep under fives from exploding with excitement in the run up to Christmas? Thank goodness term only ended on Friday, leaving a handful of days to get through endless repetitions of  “is it Christmas yet?” and “can we hang our stockings?”

Luckily Daddy took the little darlings shopping for Mummy’s Christmas Gift this morning (socks, socks and more socks, hurrah!) so I was able to finish my Father Christmas duties, clean the house, walk the dog and try to write some more adventures for Claire.

I lost an hour of precious time trying to find a building on Rightmove that fitted my mental image of what Timothy’s activity centre should look like. I love shopping for £3 million properties on the Cornish coast. In the end I had to use a blend of three different places. Fun though.

Unfortunately a shopping centre on the Sunday before Christmas is not the place to wear out small children (I suspect they could barely even move) so the kids were bouncing off the walls by 2 o’clock.

What they're meant to look like

What they’re meant to look like

Despite my hacking cough and permanent need to sleep I just about managed to dredge up enough energy to get the kids baking Christmas biscuits. It was a shame my cupboards were mostly bare and I only managed to scrape together enough ingredients for a handful of tiny morsels.

I’d really like to have a go at making the little stained glass biscuits I keep seeing around (and that happen to be in my cookery book) but I had no plain flour, boiled sweets or brown sugar. Slight problem.

But we did manage to locate eggs, icing sugar and vanilla essence, and voila! They’ll look better on the tree than they do hanging from the hands of Wenlock, but they weren’t bad for a first effort. Of course if I ask my children to mix colours, I inevitably end up with black, so they’re more suited to Hallowe’en than Christmas. The thing I like about these biscuits, though, is that you decorate them before you bake them, by adding food colouring to egg yolk. No need to wait for them to cook and cool down before icing them. Lord knows how you get intricate patterns like in the picture, though. Ours were mostly solid blocks of green! Still, it filled an hour.

Thankfully they’re finally in bed. Any tips for keeping the mania under control for the next forty-eight hours will be gratefully received! 🙂

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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 stared at the green and white livery of the coffee shop sign and let the familiarity enfold her like a blanket. She sipped at her tepid latte and tried not to think. Her eyes ached, and her skin was tight from salt and lack of sleep.

Against her will, images of the night in Cobh, and the long the flight home, played on loop, until she felt she might go crazy. The tension had been unbearable. There hadn’t been space for words. Her pain at Conor’s deceit – not his marriage so much as his method of telling her – clashed against his sense of betrayal at her considering another job.

She had no more understood his shock than he had her sense of humiliation. Despite repeated efforts to talk it through, they had been unable to find common ground. It was as if, somewhere between Claire stalking from the Baptism and Conor coming to find her in the hotel bar, they had become strangers.

They’d said farewell at the airport without touching and Claire wondered if that was the end. All the while her heart asked the unanswerable question: was it really so important to strike out on her own, to start a new life in Cornwall, rather than putting down roots working for Conor?

She could probably forgive his stupidity, letting his little sister fill her in on his history. But would he ever accept a long distance romance, especially after his wife moved across the Atlantic with his unborn child?

For a moment the need to comfort his decade-old hurt overwhelmed her and she reached for her phone. Then his stubborn anger at her conversation with Maggie played loud in her ears and she stopped.

Damn him! I told him I wasn’t going back. He accepted it. Did he think he could change my mind? What, that love conquers all? I’ve known him three months; we’ve been dating for three weeks. Yes he’s charming, but…

She stopped as her errant brain added adjectives. Charming, gorgeous, generous, kind.

Stop it,” she muttered out loud and blushed as the woman at the next table gave her an odd look.

Why can’t life be simple for once?

She drained the last of her cold coffee with a grimace and pulled out her phone. Her heart was in her mouth as she waited for the call to connect.

“Maggie, it’s Claire. Next time you speak to your friend Timothy, tell him I’m in.”

*

Guilt swirled around inside Claire like whiskey in her stomach. Even driving across Cornwall to the activity centre to meet Maggie’s friend Timothy felt like a betrayal. No matter how many times she reminded herself that she had no obligation to Conor past the end of the three-month contract, she knew how hard he had fought to get the role for her. And how essential it had been to know she had a job to return to, after leaving the darkness of her New Zealand journey behind.

And is this how I repay his efforts? Running away at the first opportunity; abandoning him to the censure of his peers. Regardless of our relationship, if such a thing still exists, I owe him more than this.

She knew the words were true, but another, quieter, voice said, Working for others got you nowhere. You need to do something for yourself.

Still, she felt beyond selfish, and wasn’t surprised that Conor hadn’t tried to get in touch since their arrival back from Ireland two days before.

As she followed the directions of the SatNav, every junction caused her to hesitate. She could turn round, go someplace different. Stay in a hostel, work on the report. It wasn’t too late to choose Conor. Every cross roads felt like a waypoint in her life. Before long she felt exhausted.

***

Time Slipping Away: 2013 365 Challenge #356

Cobh Cathedral West Side by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Cobh Cathedral West Side by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

I must apologise to regular Claire followers if this month’s installments are a bit jumpy and disjointed (and longer than usual!) I’ve never been much good at writing to a word count, and my darling characters do have a habit of wandering off on their own.

I always knew it couldn’t be a month of real time writing, with only a day covered by each installment, because I needed Claire to get to the end of her three month assignment by the end of book twelve. Having only covered four or five months since the beginning of the year, it was always going to be a tricky ask.

Then Claire had so much fun with her nephews in volume eleven that not enough time passed, and now I’m having to dip in on the story to make sure it doesn’t all drag on into the New Year. It’s only meant to be a 365 day challenge, not 400. Still, there are so many things I want to write about. The B&B she stays in with Conor in Ireland. The hotel in Plymouth. Her adventures with the Brownies in Exmoor. I still know everything she’s doing, most of the places she is going to. Does it feel rushed? If so, I’m really sorry.

I’ve caught myself out a couple of times, too, by speeding through – for example moving Claire on to meet Maggie before Conor had a chance to invite her to the christening – and it’s frustrating not to be able to change it. But I’ve always had a rule that, aside from typos, I won’t go back and edit a post once it’s live. What you read is what gets published every month.

I’m trying to pace it, to keep it authentic, to tie up all the loose ends. Ah but it’s hard! Especially as I’m full of cold and writing anything is taking twice as long as normal. I can barely remember my kids’ names, never mind how many siblings I might have given Conor earlier in the story. Ploughing back through 275k words, even with a search function, is time consuming to say the least.

So this is an apology. To Jane and Angela and anyone else reading along as I furiously scribble out an ending amidst wrapping paper and snotty tissues. If it isn’t the ending you hoped for, and deserve, I’m sorry. I hope there will be a sequel. This is only the start of a new life for Claire. And maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll find time to turn Claire’s story into what I believe it has the potential to be.

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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 felt the ground shift beneath her feet as Conor led her towards the church.

No, not church; cathedral. Nothing that big can be called a church.

She looked up at the spire stretching towards the clear blue sky, with the water and hills as a backdrop behind it. Painted buildings lined the streets, their colours vibrant in the afternoon sunshine. All around them, people in suits and smart dresses streamed towards the building. Claire looked down at the outfit she’d found in a charity shop the day before, and grimaced.

What is the point of the boxes of gorgeous clothes I’ve got sitting in storage, if they’re not accessible when I need them?

She’d thought about driving home to find a suitable outfit, but part of her didn’t want Conor to think she was making too much effort, and part of her didn’t want to give her mother another excuse for an ear-bashing.

The flight over to Ireland with Conor had been short and uneventful. The last time she’d flown with anyone, it had been to go skiing with Michael, and the memories jarred in her mind. Conor was the opposite of Michael. He seemed to enjoy the flight; looking out the window, paying attention to the safety demonstration, chatting to the people sitting around them. He had none of the air of jaded traveller that Michael had. She guessed Conor hadn’t been around the world much, although he didn’t talk about life before moving to Swanage.

The inside of the cathedral was equally overwhelming. Claire stared up at the ceiling that seemed to reach the heavens, then down at the Celtic patterns dancing across the floor. All around, the soft Irish lilt of a hundred voices filled the air like the sound of waves on a pebbly shore.

She leaned in to Conor and whispered, “These aren’t all family are they?”

“Oh no, would you imagine? No there’ll be three or four babies getting their heads wet today, plus the normal mass service.” Conor laughed as she pulled a face. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you from snoring. Come and meet my brothers and sisters.”

As he led her deep into the building he added, “And don’t let them wind you up. They’re full of stories; most of which aren’t true.”

Something in his tone made her shiver. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders and trotted after him.

*

Time moved like treacle as Claire tried to follow the service. When Conor stood to take his part as Godparent it felt like someone had opened a door and let in an icy draft.

One of his numerous relations gave her an encouraging smile but it only served to remind her she still had the ordeal of the party afterwards to endure.

At last they were back out in the sunshine with kisses and laughter, greetings and photographs. They walked en-masse to a nearby hall that was laid out with buffet and dance floor. It was clear the party was intended to last well into the evening. Conor stood with his fingers laced through hers, as he responded to hails and answered questions in a broad Irish brogue she hadn’t heard since he’d tried to charm her mother.

Conor seemed to be able to morph from role to role without conscious effort and she wondered if even he knew who the real man was underneath. Feeling like a child on her first day at school, she hovered behind his shoulder and aimed for invisible.

She found it hard to follow the conversations, as hurried words flew over her head like a flock of startled starlings, impossible to grasp. After a while she went to find a plate of food and a chair and took her phone out to take pictures. A young woman in a two-piece navy suit came to sit beside her and Claire searched her brain for a name.

The woman took pity on her. “Laura. I’m Conor’s youngest sister. It’s so lovely to meet you. We were all surprised when he said he was bringing a date. You know, after–”

She stopped and seemed to realise she’d been indiscreet by the look of bewilderment on Claire’s face.

“After what?” Claire prompted.

Hesitant, but encouraged by Claire’s nodding, Laura said, “Well, you know, after his wife left him and went to America.”

She seemed to take Claire’s wide-eyed expression as interest, as she continued to talk, learning in towards Claire. “Everyone said they married too young. Not that I remember; I was only a child. They said she was only interested in being a director’s wife so when he refused to join the Board she found someone new.”

The room span around Claire as if she were drunk. It was worse than some lurid romance. The questions tumbled one over another and her face felt numb. She saw Laura look up guiltily and followed her gaze. Conor stood in front of them, but he didn’t look angry.

Reading his expression, Claire realised it was the whole reason they were there. Unable to tell her about his past himself, he’d let his baby sister do it. With her cheeks flaming and her hands in fists she stalked past him and left the room.

*

Claire sat in the dark hotel bar with her head in her hands. The ringing in her ears muffled all sound. In her mind she pictured a young Conor, hand in hand with a faceless beauty, wandering happily down the streets of Cobh. She found if she focussed on it, she couldn’t feel him sitting next to her, trying to explain: couldn’t hear his cherished voice trying to find justification where there wasn’t any.

“I’m sorry,” she heard him say for the fifth time, and ignored it with all the rest.

“It was stupid of me.”

When she didn’t respond he said in a louder voice, “Please, Claire, at least talk to me. Yes I was married, but it’s not important, it’s ancient history

“Then why not tell me yourself?” she hissed, conscious of the other people in twos and threes around them. The double gin she’d downed on arrival slurred her words and she regretted the need to drink it. It was hard enough figuring through the mess without muddled senses.

“What is it with you blokes and your secrets?” She spat, running her hands through her hair.

“Claire, I’m not a saint, I have a past, just as you do.”

“I’ve never been married.”

“What if you had? Would that change you as a person? There were no children.” He stopped and Claire wondered if that was a lie. She gave him a penetrating stare and he ducked his head. His words were mumbled but she heard them as if they’d been yelled.

“She said she was pregnant when she left, but that she lost the baby. We were divorced inside a year of signing the register.”

A baby, too.

The world lurched sideways. She tried to hold on to something. “You loved her,” she said, hearing the truth in his voice. “Laura pretty much said you’d been pining ever since.”

“Yes I loved her.” He emphasised the past tense. “And, no, I didn’t find anyone I liked half as much, or anyone I dared trust, until I met you.”

Claire thought of her doubts, of Maggie’s job proposal, and realised she had her own secrets. It wasn’t a comfortable thought. Now wasn’t the time to discuss it, but it did make her recall something else Laura had said. “And the Company? That you didn’t want to be a Director for?”

“The family business. Mum and Dad always hoped I’d take it on but it’s not my thing. I prefer something on a more personal level. A bit like you decided, when you turned down the counter proposal from AJC.”

“How did you know about that?” Claire glared at him, feeling wrong-footed by the revelation.

“Carl put something snide in the email when he sent your reference.” He looked at her as if to say, we all have secrets.

“That hardly compares,” she said, turning away from his green eyes.

“I didn’t say it did.” He sighed. “Please don’t be mad. I’m sorry; I made a mistake in not telling you myself. I just didn’t want anything to come up later that might break us. I couldn’t go through that again.”

She looked into his eyes, shining turquoise in the gloom, and felt the sincerity in his words. Reaching a decision, she took his hand. No more secrets.

“I might have a job in Cornwall after I finish your assignment. Nothing certain, but as we’re being honest, you probably should know.”

The pain welled in his eyes, turning green to black.

***

Self-Publishing Teaches you to Ship: 2013 365 Challenge #355

None of this would have existed if I'd given up in January

None of this would have existed if I’d given up in January

I’ve discussed before about the importance of learning to ship. It’s a term I’ve learned from Kristen Lamb‘s blog. As a writer (or any kind of artist) you can’t stress over a piece of work forever. At some point you have to release it into the world, because otherwise you never start on the next project. This is so true for me.

This time last year, I was waiting to hear if Dragon Wraiths had been shortlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. My life was on hold. Having been long-listed, there was a part of me that really believed I would get shortlisted (because what is life without a pipe dream?) When I wasn’t, everything crashed in for a moment. Not because I thought Dragon Wraiths would win – I wasn’t that deluded – but because the shortlisted authors got to meet agents.

After the initial mourning (which wasn’t long) I decided to seize the moment and send out queries to as many agents as possible, while my belief was still high. I know myself so well. Of course none of those queries resulted in anything – I didn’t really expect them to, because the slush pile is huge, my opening chapter weaker than it should be, and my query letter dull. That was why I’d pinned my hopes on getting shortlisted, because getting an agent to pay attention is the hardest part of writing.

Without self-publishing, Dragon Wraiths would still be this

Without self-publishing, Dragon Wraiths would still be this

Then I started the daily challenge, and had other things to think about. I kept writing (part of the reason for doing the challenge). My family encouraged me to self-publish Dragon Wraiths and, as my belief in the book was still high, I did.

Best decision ever.

Even though it’s had some bad reviews, and sells only a handful of copies, it gave me the impetus to get Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes self-published too. That hasn’t had any reviews in the UK and only one in the US and has sold even fewer copies. But it’s out there.

The important thing with writing is to keep writing. I could not have done that if I was still trying to get an agent for Dragon Wraiths. My brain would have been on hold. I would have spent all my energy and used up all my fragile confidence sending out queries, waiting for replies, getting excited, getting depressed. It would not have suited me at all.

Yes, I think the ability to ship is too easy with Self-Publishing. Books are released too early, when perhaps they’re not as good as they could be. But I don’t really think it matters (as long as, you know, they’re not awful. With no grammar and full of typos. There has to be a minimum level!)

Lovely reviews make it all worth while

Lovely reviews make it all worth while

I believe you can over-work something: I definitely did with my artwork, towards the end. Made my paintings into what I thought others expected them to be, rather than just going with the artistic flow. My pictures became bland and lost their edge.

I’m not saying my novels wouldn’t be better for a strict edit, for going through the write and rewrite process of being traditionally published. But they might not be my books anymore. And, knowing me as I do, my faith in my writing might not survive the journey.

Besides, we live in a throwaway culture. I’m not writing books to last forever. If someone reads my book, shrugs, says “meh?” and moves on, so what? I do that to traditionally published books all the time (even books by favourite authors like Terry Pratchett. More on that in another post). At least they haven’t spent a fortune on it.

And for every person who leaves me a one-star review that says I wasted hours of their life, there will be someone eagerly hanging on my next release. And there will be a next release, because of those people.

I would have given up on Claire months ago, if I didn’t know people were reading it. I would have given up after three months of querying Dragon Wraiths and gone searching for a day job, if I hadn’t had enthusiastic reviews. I certainly wouldn’t have thought about writing a sequel.

Self publishing isn’t for everyone. I read for and against arguments all the time (usually by interested parties, arguing for their own chosen route!) But, for me, it has been a salvation. Reading posts like these (Are you waiting for permission?) about the waiting and worry of the traditional route, I know now that I would have given up too soon. My self belief was a tiny spark in the dark and, with nothing to fan it into life, it would have died out completely.

Only time will tell if I will make it as an author. All I know is, without my blog, without self-publishing, without getting some kind of positive feedback, I wouldn’t have come even this far. Everyone knows the key to becoming a better author is writing more books. What they forget to say is that you need to ship them too! 🙂

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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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“How do you like the south west?”

Maggie’s question sounded innocent enough, but Claire frowned at her, wondering if she had somehow picked up on her dilemma: Dorset or Cornwall?

“It’s a beautiful part of the world,” she replied in a noncommittal voice. “I think of all the places I’ve been too, Cornwall feels most like home.”

Maggie’s face became wistful. “I was like that with the Lake District.” Then she brightened. “You can always find a new home, though.”

Claire wondered at her meaning and a memory surfaced in her mind. “I thought you hated moving away from the Lakes? Didn’t you say you moved south to be with your husband – Steve, was it? But you went back to the Lakes whenever you could.”

Maggie’s eyes opened wide. “You have a good memory! Yes, that’s true, I missed the Lake District. Kent is pretty, but it lacks the drama of the northern counties. Cornwall has its own drama though, as I’m sure you’ve discovered.”

With a nod, Claire took a sip of her Earl Grey and tried to understand the change in Maggie. There was a radiance about her that she didn’t remember from before.

“Tell me about your friend and her activity centre. It sounds like a big project?”

“His.”

“Sorry?” Claire looked puzzled.

“My friend is a he.” Maggie flushed and looked down at the table, her hands cupped around a steaming mug of teak-brown tea.

Claire stared at Maggie and a suspicion began to seep into her consciousness. But how to ask? Suppressing a smile she said nonchalantly. “So, he is opening this activity centre. Where do I come in?”

“Like I said, Timothy needs assistance with the marketing and promotional side of things. He’s done all the set up and renovations himself. You should see the place, it’s amazing.” Her eyes glittered with enthusiasm. “It really is a wonderful thing he’s doing. He has lottery money to help get him started, but there is so much to do.”

“And are you helping too?” Claire drew circles on the wooden table with one finger.

“Yes, I go when I can. I still have commitments at home.” She seemed to realise where the questions were leading and looked up sheepishly at Claire, who wondered if she was brave enough to pry.

Trying to pour all her curiosity into her gaze, Claire rested her eyes on Maggie and waited.

“Oh, alright then, if you must!” Maggie exclaimed, as if Claire had spoken. “Steve and I broke up. I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I met Timothy, and he told me about his dream.”

Claire sat back and listened as Maggie explained all about her new romance, about how amazing it was to have something to pour herself into, now her children had left home. How Steve had seemed relieved when she ended their thirty-year marriage and how she felt they had never really understood each other.

Claire thought about Conor. Who hated silence, who would rather be in a crowded bar listening to loud music than striding across empty hills. Conor who had invited her to a weekend in Ireland for a family celebration, a thought she was desperately trying to forget. There was nothing like going to a church to give an eager man ideas.

Eventually Maggie seemed to sense Claire’s lack of attention and her flow of words trickled to a halt. “I’m so sorry, wittering on like this. You must be bored stiff.”

With a stab of guilt, Claire sat forward. “Sorry, Maggie, I am listening. It’s just I have a new man, too, and he’s invited me to a Baptism on Saturday. In his home town, near Cork. My mind wandered for a moment, because I don’t know if I should go.”

And it all poured out. Everything that had happened since she’d last spoken to Maggie. About Conor not wanting to leave Swanage, and her urge to stay in Cornwall. How she didn’t want to work for him, and wasn’t sure they had enough in common to be together.

“My goodness,” Maggie said, when Claire had finished. She looked as if she was about to say something else when a general commotion around them heralded the arrival of the Brownies for afternoon tea. With a look that said, we’ll talk later, Maggie rose and went to serve juice and cake.

*

“Hey gorgeous, are you all set for the weekend?”

Claire heard the hesitation in Conor’s voice, as she cradled the phone to her ear and tried to block out the sound of endless chatter from the room next door.

“Where are you?” He added before she could answer; his tone somewhere between amusement and frustration. “I can barely hear you.”

“Sorry, I’m staying with Maggie at the hostel in Exmoor National Park. Don’t you remember? I said I was coming up here to pick her brains about the Guide Association. The children are currently getting ready for bed, if you can call it that!” She laughed. For all her initial horror, she’d enjoyed spending the afternoon with the Brownies. They were at a nice age, between childish dependence and teenage sass.

“Yes, I remember. Will you be back to catch the flight on Friday night? Only the service is Saturday afternoon so we need to be there in time.”

Claire chewed her cheek. Conor had mentioned the Baptism in passing on Sunday, before he returned to his apartment. It hadn’t sounded a big deal, more an excuse to go away together for the weekend. She wasn’t sure she was ready for it, but didn’t have a good excuse to say no. Now, though, he sounded anxious.

“Am I missing something?” She asked, deciding honesty was the only way. “The last time your family tried to get you to go to a Baptism you chose to take two boys out to a castle instead. I thought you avoided these family affairs?”

“That was some distant cousin. This is my niece and I’m one of the godparents.”

Claire gasped. “You didn’t mention that on Sunday.”

There was silence followed by Conor clearing his throat. “I was afraid to. I thought you wouldn’t come if you knew we’d be right in the middle of it. My family can be a bit full on. But I’ve been thinking about it, and it didn’t seem fair to spring it on you when we got there.”

He sounded like a small boy explaining the muddy footprints on the white carpet. Claire was forced to smile, although she still felt sick.

“I don’t have to do anything, do I? As your guest? I thought godparents were usually couples?”

“No and not always. You just sit in the pew and try to stay awake. You might want to wear a frock.”

Claire slumped back on the bed and groaned. A formal meet the family affair, two weeks into a new relationship. Just what she needed.

***

Christmas Cheer: 2013 365 Challenge #354

Xmas Jammies

Xmas Jammies

Today’s post is for anyone struggling to find their Christmas cheer, at the end of what has been a very long year (around here at least).

We had some bad news regarding the car saga yesterday so, on top of germs and Christmas Chaos, we’re a bit low. Then I gave my daughter her Christmas Stocking this morning, that I lovingly sewed her name onto and she said, “Yes Mummy, I saw the picture on the iPad. It’s a bit big.”

Let me weep.

With children and parents alike exhausted and a teeny bit jaded from all the festivities, it’s not an easy time to find a sense if humour.

If Boxing Day can’t come soon enough and you’re already tired of mince pies and tinsel, or if – like me – you wonder why you’re doing it all for your oh so ungrateful children, this is the best of the holiday humour I’ve come across this week (and shared on my Facebook page!)

  • First up has to be the viral Xmas Jammies video. This is brilliant. A tongue in cheek (and wonderfully written/sung) Christmas card. I dare you not to be smiling by the end of it (unless you have to turn off Made In Chelsea because wife is playing it on her ipad. Sorry hubbie.)
  • Although my children are past this age, I had to giggle at The Ten-Month Old’s letter to Santa. Highlights include the laptop chord, house keys and dog food. Ah, at least those days are gone. There is something to be grateful for.
  • This Christmas Letter from Honest Toddler Mum gives a real version of what goes on at this time of year, rather than the sanitised social media / Pinterest one. For anyone who gets the cheery round-robin letter from a random friend they don’t otherwise hear from one year to the next, this one’s for you.
  • Miss Fanny Price shared this great letter to a head teacher from Rosie White, about how there won’t be any homework done this holiday season. Amen.
  • Also, I have to say I’m loving the new coke ad (much as I hate to add to their viral campaign!) For anyone with preschoolers in the house, this one is for you. How do we ever have more than one? 😉

And on a more sincere Christmas spirit note, there is the story of the bear called Roar reunited with his owner, after being left on a UK train, as a result of a Twitter and Facebook campaign. Heartwarming.

Let’s hope we can all find some Christmas cheer between now and 3.30pm when the schools break up for the holidays, otherwise it’s going to be a really long two weeks! Merry Christmas.

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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 stopped at the white door, reeling from the sound of screaming and thumping feet. She hesitated, wondering if this was a good idea. But Maggie was waiting for her, she couldn’t chicken out now. Besides, the children weren’t in her care. If they drove her crazy she could always leave and find a hotel.

Peering through the open doorway, shielded from the sun by overhanging ivy, Claire tried to locate reception. A sea of brown poured past, as what seemed like hundreds of girls in uniform headed outside. She held out a hand to stop the least frightening-looking children, walking hand in hand towards the door.

“Hello, is Maggie around anywhere?”

The girls looked suspiciously at her, shrugged and giggled, before running on to join their friends. Claire tried to think what Maggie’s surname was but couldn’t bring it to mind.

Damn

As the next group of girls came by she said, “Can you tell me where I can find Brown Owl?”

The girls conferred, then pointed inside. “Out the back,” one said, before they all scarpered like a herd of startled hill ponies.

The information didn’t help much but, feeling as if she had been given permission to enter the building, Claire headed in the general direction of the pointed finger.

As the last of the children streamed past, the place fell silent. Claire wondered where they were all going: they didn’t seem old enough to be unaccompanied. Eventually she found a conservatory at the back of the dining room, and saw Maggie with a group of adults, all leaning over a table consulting what looked to be a map.

She stood for a moment, unwilling to intrude. Maggie must have sensed her presence, because she looked round.

“Claire! How wonderful. Come and meet everyone. Sally, Bea, Helen, Jo, this is my friend Claire, who I told you about. She’s going to stay with us for a day or two.” Maggie beamed at them all. She turned back to the table, and said, “Can you finish up here? The girls will be fine for a few minutes. I’d like to show Claire to her room.”

Without waiting for a response, she took Claire’s arm to lead her out. “The children are doing a wide game that we set up before lunch. They’ll be out in the grounds for a while under the watchful eye of some parents, who will hopefully make sure no one falls in the river this year. Have you had a chance to look around? It’s a beautiful place.”

While she spoke, Maggie led Claire through the building and up the stairs. She took Claire into a small dorm and said, “I hope you don’t mind sharing with the staff? None of them snore, thankfully. I went hiking once with a leader who could have woken the rocks. It was a challenge to get to bed before she did, to have any hope of sleeping.”

Claire smiled at Maggie’s chatter. She seemed much happier than when they’d last met. Or maybe not happier, maybe just more together.

Perhaps being Brown Owl makes you put on a persona of calm.

Although, as she thought back to the last two times they had met, Maggie had always been calm. But there had been an air of melancholy that seemed absent now.

“How are you?” she asked, when Maggie drew breath. “You seem in good spirits.”

Maggie sat on a bunk and patted next. “Come sit with me. I was so glad to see that you were in this part of the world.”

Intrigued, Claire sat down and waited. Maggie leant forwards, resting her arms along her knees. The Brown Owl uniform made her look younger, although her hair was still steel-grey. When she looked up she was smiling, the dimples flashing in her cheeks.

“I haven’t been entirely honest about my reason for wanting to catch up. I have a proposition for you, but I wasn’t sure how to broach it. I was hoping to let you settle in for a while first, but I might lose my nerve.”

Claire found it hard to breathe. Her first thought was that one more person wanted something from her, and she didn’t want to know. Especially not from someone she had no ties to.

As if sensing her reluctance, the dimples vanished from Maggie’s cheeks and her eyes lost their sparkle. “I was right, I shouldn’t ask it of you. Forget I mentioned it.”

Chastened, Claire said immediately, “Don’t be silly. Tell me.”

“Well, it’s just a friend of mine is opening a new activity centre for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, based in Cornwall. They need help with the marketing and advertising side of things, but can’t afford to hire anyone. They’re also looking for activity staff, who will be paid, although not much. Reading on your blog about your surfing, and all the fun stuff you’ve done, and knowing you used to work at an advertising agency. Well, I wondered…” She trailed off and the room fell silent.

Claire’s mind reeled with the new information. Another job offer. They did come from the most unlikely places. Marketing and working with children? Two things she wasn’t sure she wanted in her future.

But how many options do I have? And it would mean being able to stay in Cornwall.

She found a glimmer of interest sparkling deep in her heart. She would have to know more about it, of course, and more about this friend of Maggie’s. There was something in the word friend that raised questions.

Claire sat up straight and looked at Maggie with a smile. “Why don’t we go make a cuppa and discuss it?”

Maggie’s look of relief made Claire giggle, and the two women walked arm in arm from the room.

***

Getting into the 80s Groove: 2013 365 Challenge #353

Can't beat the 80s rock vibe

Can’t beat the 80s rock vibe

To get in the mood to write today’s Claire installment, I listened to some 80s covers by a band called Ashes to Ashes (which, incidentally, were playing at a pub in Plymouth on 17th August, the day Claire and Conor visited. Isn’t that handy and isn’t the internet amazing?) You can listen to their cover songs here.

I don’t normally listen to music while I’m writing. I often read blogs and articles about authors and the soundtracks to their books: the songs they listened to while writing or to get them in the right frame of mind or mood. I find music distracting and only use it to drown out even more distracting noises (the neighbour’s barking dogs or the kids screaming downstairs.) I have a playlist that I know so well it’s like white noise. Or I play Ludovico Einaudi, which makes soothing background music.

Today, though, bopping to Walk Like An Egyptian really helped me imagine that I was standing with Claire in the cobbled square listening to a live band, rather than sitting on a sofa next to a snoring dog, feeling bunged up and poorly, and irritated after a morning of Christmas chaos (forgetting to take broken toy back to the shop when I collected the new one, so having to buy a second one instead. Sigh.)

What I found interesting, though, was realising I have no idea what kind of music Claire would choose to listen to. I don’t tend to create fully formed, three-dimensional characters in a first draft. I like to get to know my characters as I write, just as a reader does. I know it breaks all the writing rules – the standard view is you should know everything and anything about your characters, from their date of birth, background and schooling to favourite colour and first boyfriend. I’m lucky if I know their age and surname by the end of a book.

Writing to an 80s groove with Ashes to Ashes

Writing to an 80s groove with Ashes to Ashes

Maybe it’s lazy writing. Characters are often based on an element of me to begin with, so when they make decisions I kind of know what they’re going to do. As the novel grows they separate from me and become themselves, but I know no more about their history than I do about the mummies I see every day at school pick up. We chat, we get on, we share anecdotes and agonies, but I don’t know if they like Megadeth or Mozart.

When I’ve finished a first draft I compile a character template, listing all the things I have learnt about my protagonists through our journey together, and I add in a few more to make the stories more three-dimensional.

Of course, with Two-Hundred Steps Home, I’ve had to fill the template out as I go along, to try and maintain consistency and authenticity. I’ve made a few mistakes – Robert’s children are a bit old, Kim’s character has wobbled a bit (to me anyway) and I haven’t yet decided how many siblings Conor has (which I need to know soon). I know that Claire went to a private school and did an Arts degree, but I don’t know when she had her first kiss or whether she reads chick lit or sci fi.

I would be interested to know if any readers, who didn’t know about the challenge when they started reading THSH, have noticed the lack of depth, or have discovered any inconsistencies. As for whether Conor or Claire would like 80s music (or if Robert would have listened to it in his teens) that’s another question entirely. As my taste in music stopped in the mid-90s, if she likes twenty-first century music I’m afraid she’s on her own!

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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 held Conor’s hand tightly as he led her down the street towards the noise. To their right, three huge stained glass windows loomed in the gathering darkness, reflecting the street light. They passed a café, where people sat at tables outside, trying to talk over the racket from further down the road. Ahead Claire saw the crest of the magistrates’ court, and wondered exactly where Conor was taking them.

They’d met in Plymouth for lunch and Conor had asked if he could choose their evening entertainment, saying with a twinkle, “I’ve let you try and drown me in the surf and walk my feet off on the cliffs. It’s my turn to introduce you to my thing.”

Worried by the glint in his eyes, Claire had reluctantly agreed. Now, as her ears protested against the battering of loud music and shouting voices, she wished she’d pressed him for details.

“What do you think?” he yelled, over the wail of an electric guitar. “A great craic, yes?”

Claire stumbled slightly, as the tarmac turned into cobbles, and grabbed Conor for support. He wrapped his arm around her and looked down, as if gauging her reaction. Sensing something was required, she tried to process the scene before her. A bar was just visible in the corner of the street, its black arched windows obscured by milling bodies. Next to the bar were the steps to the magistrates’ court, and on top – using the entrance as a kind of stage – was a band. Every other square inch of available space was packed in with bodies.

Feeling as if she was standing beneath a waterfall, Claire leant in to Conor and concentrated on breathing. Six months ago this would have been a normal night out. But months on the road, often with only the stars for company, had erased the memories from her mind. The music travelled up through the cobbles and into her feet, vibrating through her body like she was a gong.

“Sorry,” Conor said into her ear, “I shouldn’t have brought you. We can go if you like.”

Claire looked up eagerly, ready to assent, and caught the disappointment in his expression. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek, then said, “Don’t be silly. It looks great.” She was about to ask for a gin and tonic when she noticed the mobile bar near the impromptu stage. “Mine’s a pint of Guinness.”

Her words were rewarded with a wide grin. He turned towards the bar, pulling her along behind him through the press of people. Claire tried to work out what music it was, as she responded to the pressure on her arm to stop and move as the crowd dictated. Conor dropped her hand to get to the bar, and she backed up against a railing to avoid getting crushed.

Slowly, as her ears tuned into the music, she realised she knew the tune: a cover of an ’80s rock song. Around her, people jumped in time to the beat and she felt her own feet responding. It wasn’t really her era, but Robert had gone through a phase in his teens, and she recognised the songs.

Sensing movement out the corner of her eye, she saw Conor returning with two pints of black liquid. Accepting hers, and wondering when she’d last drunk from a pint glass, Claire stood by Conor’s side and watched the band.

The music wormed in deep. The riffs were basic, the vocals a reasonable mimic of the original, and the crowd extremely enthusiastic.

When did I last go to a gig? Apart from in that bar in Swanage, when I bumped into Conor?

She and Kim had gone a few times when they were younger, but her adult life had been more about wine bars and restaurants, with the occasional venture to the theatre. So much more passive than watching a live band, dancing and singing along. She looked over at Conor and saw that he was watching her rather than the stage. She felt self-conscious, as if she were eighteen again. He leaned forwards to kiss her. Her tummy squirmed and the years fell away.

*

As they walked back to their hotel, fingers entwined, Conor looked down at Claire and laughed. “The look on your face when we turned the corner was priceless.”

Claire dropped her head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be a grouch. I’m out of practice.”

“You looked like you found your groove, bopping with the best. Very sexy.” He stopped near a shop window and pulled her close. “I know we like different things, you and I,” he said in a low, husky voice. “But don’t let that convince you we have nothing in common.”

A shiver ran across Claire’s skin, despite the warm evening. It felt like he’d crept into her mind and read the deepest secrets. The gig had worried her, made her wonder how they would spend their time together, wonder what kind of a future they could have. She realised she didn’t even know how a relationship functioned, away from the routine of working week and playtime weekends.

Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face because Conor brushed his hand across her cheek. “Don’t overthink it. You’ve spent a lot of time on your own, finding your place in the world. You and I; we work. Don’t try and figure out why, or you’ll go nuts. Just trust that it’s true.”

He leant forwards and kissed her gently. Her mind resisted and she told it to shut up. Lacing her arms behind his head, she surrendered to the kiss.

***

Why School is Important (In my opinion): 2013 365 Challenge #352

My daughter as she is with me (good and placid)

My daughter as she is with me (good and placid)

Yesterday I went to my son’s nursery so he could get a gift from Father Christmas, and then in the afternoon we went to my daughter’s school to attend story time.

Both visits were an opportunity for me to spend a length of time in the place where my children go when they’re not with me. It was quite an eye-opener. Even taking into consideration that the events meant it wasn’t ‘business as usual’ there were still elements of both that concerned me.

At the nursery I saw how hard it was for the staff to rein in the exuberance of the excited boys, who were throwing toys and being boisterous. Without being about to shout (which is probably a good thing) or give time outs and so on, it seemed hard to find the balance between play and potential danger. Even with four adults in the room it felt like a place of stress and unhappiness rather than fun.

My daughter in silly mode

My daughter in silly mode

I also saw that it was a difficult environment for boys with energy: the bouncy children I watched were pulled up long before I would have stepped in at home. With other people’s children I guess you can’t be too careful. But there doesn’t seem to be much space for them to let off steam safely without being reprimanded.

It was similar at school, during story time. Most of the children sat nicely on their bottoms, but one or two of the boys were quite disruptive. I’ve noticed them in the mornings, too, and I guess every class has them (I suspect my son might be one of them, in a couple of years!)

At home I would have sent my son to the trampoline to burn off energy, but a school doesn’t have that opportunity. I also noticed my daughter wriggling and not paying attention at times, and I wanted to say something (but didn’t!) because I want her to be one of the good children that listens to the teacher.

Son doing good listening at fencing

Son doing good listening at fencing

Wherever I am, when I’m with the children, I expect a certain level of behaviour and I will step in, even if they’re in a class (if I’m close enough to do so without being disruptive). So I’ll tell my son to listen at gymnastics, or I’ll reiterate instructions at fencing. Because they’re my children and I want them to be good.

But as I thought about it all last night, while streaming with cold, in that befuddled place your brain goes to when it’s ill, I realised that it’s important that my children go to school and nursery. Not just because they can get away from shouty Mummy (yesterday wasn’t my best day!) and spend time with different adults, and learn and have friends and all that. It’s also good that they spend time with people who have greater perspective.

Because compared to the boisterous boys, my daughter is an angel, and I know I’m too hard on her. I’m hard on her because my parents were on me. I’m hard on her because I have no perspective (and quite often not enough sleep). I’m hard, but I’m not consistent and sometimes I’m not fair. Poor child. I want to be the perfect parent, but I most certainly try too hard and I most certainly fail much of the time.

I wrote a while about about the importance of learning to fail. Of learning that it doesn’t have to be 100% all the time and that 65% is enough. But it’s hard, as a parent, to give a child that room to be themselves. At school, at nursery, where there are lots of other children contending for attention, all with different strengths and weaknesses, it’s a space where a child can learn to succeed and learn to fail and get the same reaction from the nearest adult.

A Vist From Father Christmas

A Vist From Father Christmas

I read a great cartoon on Facebook today (I was going to buy it to use on the blog, but it was £8.40, so visit my Facebook page to see the cartoon!) of a mother saying to her daughter:

“Honey, when you grow up I want you to be assertive, independent and strong-willed. But while you’re a kid, I want you to be passive, pliable and obedient.”

It made me laugh and cringe, because it’s too true. I want my kids to be confident, but I shatter their confidence a hundred times a day, just because I’m stressed, tired or grumpy.

School is a place where they might not have attention all the time, they won’t always be hugged when they’re sad (but then, they won’t get shouted at either); they might be bored, sad, lonely, hurt, naughty, wriggly or annoying. But they can be all those things without anyone trying to make them perfect. They can breathe. They can learn who they are away from their controlling parent (moi?) and find space to just be. Hurrah.

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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 rested her head against the back of the wooden garden seat and gazed at the sky. From here it was easy to imagine the rest of the world had dropped away, leaving only a tiny walled garden and the endless azure heavens. She knew she should call Conor, but the silence replenished the emptiness in her soul. After the weekend with Kim and Helena – despite the happy conclusion – she felt drained and tearful.

Why am I not happy? I have a gorgeous man who seems to care for me, my friend is on the road to recovery and reunion with her husband, and I’m close to finishing my report with time to spare. What is wrong with me?

It felt ungrateful to the universe to be unhappy on such a gorgeous evening. She had spent the last few days wandering around North Devon, furthering her findings, talking to hotel owners and shop keeper and chatting to tourists. The weather continued to smile on her endeavours and she’d even managed a cheeky surf late one evening as the sky turned pink.

Now she sat unencumbered and alone, with a cup of tea wrapped in her hands, while an invisible artist painted golden stripes along the horizon.

She rested the mug on the bench next to her and turned so she could kneel and face the sea behind her. The shadow of Lundy Island beckoned in the distance – her destination for the morning – and the rainbow of sunset colours deepened to peach and rose.

The buzz of her phone broke the stillness, and she sighed. I could always ignore it. He’ll call back, he always does.

She smiled at the always. They’d only been together for just over a week. Aren’t I meant to still be giddy and excited in week two? Answering the phone with trembling hands, ready to talk sweet nothings for hours? Is this what dating in your late twenties is like? No magic.

Flashes of the afternoon she had spent with Conor, after Kim and her sister left, filled her head. The magic hadn’t been lacking.

Then what? That old cliché it’s not you, it’s me? Or it’s not the right time? Is there ever a right time to fall in … She stopped short. I am not falling in love. I barely know the guy. Lust, maybe.

The phone continued to ring and eventually she picked it up, not recognising the number.

“Hello, is Susan there, please?”

Claire frowned for a moment, confused. Then her brain caught up. “Sorry, no, you have the wrong number.”

Her peace shattered by the call, and the sneaky relief that it hadn’t been Conor, Claire was about to drop the phone onto the bench when she noticed a new email had arrived. Clicking on the message, she realised it was from Maggie.

I didn’t even know she had my address.

Puzzled, Claire opened the message, wondering what Maggie wanted. Although she had only met her a few times, Maggie felt like a friend; a steady force in a shifting world.

Hi Claire

I hope you don’t mind me emailing you – I found your address through your blog. I noticed that you’ve been travelling round the south west recently, and I wondered if you were still there? We are bringing the Guides on an adventure holiday next week and it would be lovely to see you.

We’re booked into the Exford hostel in Somerset. I know it’s a bit away from where you’ve been recently, but if it was on your route it would be super to be able to catch up. We will be there all week and we have booked the whole hostel but as I am organising it, I believe I can find you a bed.

Do let me know if you are free. I have been following your journey with interest and would love to hear the parts that don’t make it onto your blog.

Kind regards

Maggie

Claire’s face stretched wide in a smile of genuine pleasure as she finished reading. Without hesitation she tapped out a response in the affirmative, before she could worry what Conor would think.

I’m sure that widening the remit of my report to include Somerset isn’t too far off brief. Besides, an association like the Guides is perfect research, and who better to interview than Maggie.

Glad to have something to look forward to, Claire pocketed her phone and headed back into the hostel to eat.

***