Making a Change: It Starts Here

My Reason For Change

My Reason For Change

As a writer I know the power of words. Words can move, heal, hurt, destroy. Change the world. Think about Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “I have been to the mountain top”. Or the words in the bible. As a writer I should know to mind my words but, like any person of a certain profession, I don’t always follow my own beliefs.

A while ago I read a poem called powerful words on Chris McMullen’s blog and I said something in the comments about the words I use to my children being the wrong ones and how damaging that was and how I can’t take them back.

It’s something I’ve been worrying about more and more lately. Then, today, I read this article on Facebook called Ten Ways to Guide Children Without Punishment and I felt like I’d been whipped. It starts with these words,

“The reason a child will act unkindly or cause damage is always innocent. Sometimes she is playful and free spirited, and other times, when aggressive or angry she is unhappy or confused. The more disturbing the behaviour, the more the child is in pain and in need of your love and understanding”

Oh my it’s so true. I get most angry with my son when he’s at his happiest because that’s when he’s at his most destructive/deaf/irritating. Lately I’ve started hearing some of the terrible things I say to my children when I’m in a rage: things that were probably said to me, that I believe about myself deep down, that I’m teaching them to believe, and so the cycle continues.

“You’re lazy,” “You’re mean”, “You’re being selfish”, “You’re unkind”, “You’re trying to hurt me”.

These things are not true of children, certainly not two wonderful children under five. I excuse myself (or else I couldn’t live with myself a moment longer) by saying I’m exhausted, they don’t remember it, that I’m teaching them not to be bullies, and a load of other rubbish that just isn’t true.

My amazing kids!

My amazing kids!

To complete the trio of articles that have a) made me feel like ending my own life I hate myself so much and b) have forced me to see the need for change, is this one I found on Twitter called Why We Told Our Kids to Stop Saying “Sorry”. It discuss why the author has stopped her children apologising. She said to her child, after his umpteenth sorry, that, “Your sorries don’t mean anything when your behavior shows me that you aren’t sorry at all.”

I say sorry. All The Time. I’m sorry for living, I’m sorry for being a monster, I’m sorry it’s raining. Either it’s something I can’t control or it’s something I could change if I tried hard enough. Sorry doesn’t cut it. There’s a meme on Facebook about comparing a crumpled piece of paper to a bullied child: you can smooth the paper but the creases never go. You can say sorry but you can’t unsay the hurtful words.

As I write this I feel sick to my stomach. I feel like I have hurt my children beyond repair, beyond redemption. But the more I beat myself up about being a monster, saying the hurtful things I heard in my childhood, the more I give myself permission to continue because, hey, I’m a monster already.

I am not a monster. And, no matter how exhausted, overwhelmed, unhappy I am with being a parent, it is not my children’s fault. So, today, I have to make a commitment to stop. In my post yesterday I mentioned the book Happiness as a Second Language. The author, Valerie Alexander, stopped by to encourage me to read the book some more. So last night I did. I read all the way to Chapter Nine, although I need to read it again to take it in properly. The two chapters that really resonated were Chapter Eight – Adjectives and Chapter Nine – The Negative Form. Because these are the two I know I need to learn. Adjectives: the describing words I use on myself and my children, and learning not to be a negative person.

Because another thing I’ve learned from childhood is that sympathy = attention, that being broken means people try to fix you, help you, love you. That being happy means people resent you, ignore you, take you for granted. So I’ve learned to be miserable, so people ask “what’s wrong?” Except of course they stop asking after a while, or get bored of hearing the same ol same ol. So you up the ante. You think of taking your own life because then “That will show them I’m really miserable.” No, that just shows that you were too pathetic to help yourself.

Chatting to my sports massage friend yesterday she says it frustrates her when people refuse to help themselves get better. That’s me. I’ve had an injured knee for eighteen months but will I do the exercises to get better? No. I make excuses that they hurt, or I’m tired, or I don’t believe they’re working. Instead of growing up and just getting on with it. The only person that suffers from that is me (and my dog and my family.)

I want to learn how to be happy

I want to learn how to be happy

So I don’t want to be a negative person anymore. I don’t want to steal other people’s happiness to make myself feel better. An “Indirect Negator” in Valerie’s words, someone “whose own unhappiness is so palpable that it risks becoming contagious.” Equally I don’t want to be around people like that (and I know a few).

The next thing I am going to do is choose five adjectives I want to describe me: five things I want people to think when they think about me, and live those values. This is an exercise I think I can do because I obsess about what people think about me all the time. That probably needs fixing too, but at least I can use it to my advantage.

Being a wordy sort of person I came up with alliterative adjectives so they’re easier to remember. There are many traits I’d like to be: successful, funny, strong, gracious, social, but I have to be realistic about what is in my control and what fits with my personality. So the five I have chosen are:

  • Calm
  • Confident
  • Caring
  • Compassionate
  • Clever

Calm: Since becoming a parent I am never calm. I rush around saying “we’re late” or I’m yelling or sniping at the kids, or I’m trying to do one hundred things at once. Yet, way back when, I used to work for a man who said “You’re always calm.” I said, “I’m a swan, I’m paddling furiously underneath.” But what mattered was that, on the exterior, I was calm. As a parent that’s the important bit. Honesty is great, but I am too honest about my feelings with the kids. They will feel calmer and happier if Mummy is calm. So, back to being a swan. This great article on Aha! Parenting will help.

Confident: My lack of self-confidence is something I wear like a badge. I second and third guess myself on everything. I dither, I ask for opinions. I change my mind, or let my mind be changed. I cry. I negotiate with the kids. I let other people’s parenting affect how I feel about mine. And yet the one thing I want for my children is self-confidence. To the point where I want to put them in a private school to learn it, because I know they can’t learn it from me. And yet the private school I visited was not right for my children.

I did use to have the courage of my convictions, when I worked for a living. I knew my stuff and I would argue my case (not always calmly!) and stand my ground. Against clients, against directors. No wonder I never got promoted. Now, though, as a writer and a parent, all I read are articles telling me how I’m doing it wrong, how I should do it better, and I believe every contradictory word. (Read this post by Ava Neyer for an hilarious summary of how contradictory parenting advice can be). So, I’ll start with the mask and hopefully confidence will come.

Learning Kindness from my Kids

Learning Kindness from my Kids

Caring: This would have been a given, once. I considered myself an empathetic person, someone who cared about others. I seem to have lost that at the vital moment. Now I’ve become a monster. I say to the kids all the time “I don’t care” when they’re whinging about something. Arrgghh. Enough said. I will care. I will listen. I will kiss the grazed knees and listen to the fights and try not to get involved but still be present and caring.

Compassionate: Similar to above, but more about seeing other people’s points of view. I can be very judgemental and it has only got worse since becoming a parent. Part of my defence mechanism against feeling like a terrible parent is seeking out instances of other people’s terrible parenting to make myself feel better. I have probably made other people feel bad in the process. I want to learn to be more compassionate to other people (especially my family).

Clever: This used to be the one thing I knew I was, back when it was easy, when it was about exams and studying and stuff. The longer I’ve lived the more I’ve realised I know nothing. But the brain is still in there, beneath the lack of sleep and the low self-esteem and the self-doubt. I know stuff about writing, but through modesty, humility or fear, I can’t present myself as an authority here on the blog or to others. Yet I probably know more than I realise. Ditto for marketing, history, literature and some other stuff. I don’t want to bore the pants off people but remembering I have a brain and using it sometimes might help the other stuff.

Anyway, sorry for the long, self-indulgent post. When I finished writing it at 6am this morning I nearly hit delete. But then, for me, much of the beauty of the blogsphere is learning from others, seeing others experiencing pain and surviving it. Regular followers know my demons. By declaring to you all that I’m going to do this, I have made it a real thing. I will try and some days I will fail. But by trying to live the values of Calmness, Confidence, Caring, Compassion and being Clever, I hope to make a difference before it’s too late.

Terry Pratchett: Fact and Fantasy

Snuff - About Dickensian London

Dodger – About Dickensian London

Those of you who regularly follow this blog will know that I don’t generally write book reviews. In fact I subscribe to the view that it’s very difficult for a writer to review a book as a reader might.

However, partly because I want to carry on with the daily blogging, and partly through self-interest (as one of my most visited posts this year is a book review) I’m going to try and write a few on the blog in 2014. I want to concentrate on books where I have no connection to the author – those people I have met through the blog or who I have beta-read for – because I read those books differently. I don’t enjoy them less (probably more, actually) but I’m usually too close to be objective.

But books I’ve picked up at the library, or authors I’ve read for years, well I’ll happily pass on any observations that occur to me and we’ll see how it goes. I suspect it will be more a ramble than a review, such is my style! As a happy coincidence I’ve just finished two books by my favourite author of all time, Terry Pratchett, so that’s a good place to start.

Of the two books – Snuff, A Discworld novel, and Dodger – Snuff was by far the most enjoyable for me. I’ll admit I may not even have read Dodger if I’d bothered to check the blurb and seen that it wasn’t a Discworld novel. I’m glad I did read it, even though it was a struggle to finish, because it made me appreciate Snuff all the more. I also discovered that it isn’t just Terry Pratchett I love, but Fantasy as a genre; particularly his form of Fantasy.

Dodger is set in 19th Century London and includes characters such as Charles Dickens, Disraeli (former UK Prime Minister) and Henry Mayhew (a nineteenth-century English social researcher), based on their real life counterparts. One can then easily imagine that the lead protagonist is meant to be the model for the Artful Dodger and the story feels more about showing the inspiration for Dickens as a writer (at one point Dodger finishes his soup and asks for more), than exploring Dodger as a character, or what it really meant to live in Nineteenth-Century London.

For me, the novel lacked Pratchett’s usual flair for appealing characters, suspense-driven plot or great humour and dialogue. I struggled to finish it even though, as a super fan, I really wanted to like it. The novel felt like a vehicle for some ideas that had been bubbling in the author’s brain, that were then shoe-horned into a story. Or *shudder* like an Eighteenth-Century Bildungsroman novel, like Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. The book seemed to try too hard to be clever, with the references to historical figures and real places. But I may be biased in this view because, when it comes to blending fact and fiction in a novel, I hate it.

I consider myself something of a reluctant historian, as a result of doing both A Level and Degree History, despite discovering a real love for English Literature that resulted in me switching camps in my third year and then for my Masters. As a result I find historical fiction to be too much stuck in both camps. Do I suspend disbelief, as a reader and student of fiction, or do I concentrate on the factual representation, as a Historian? When I read books like this, I find the urge to check details and constantly ask “Is that true?” Or I feel ignorant for not knowing what is and isn’t historical fact.

Snuff - A Discworld Novel

Snuff – A Discworld Novel

Give me allegorical fantasy any day. Because the beauty of the Discworld novels is that they are also based on our society, albeit one that is viewed through some twisted prism (as a former Insurance Manager, the introduction of Inn-sewer-ants in Colour of Magic remains one of my favourites). Quirm for example is based on France, with it’s avec food and it’s rue de Wakening (read it out loud). Some of the best laugh out loud moments are due to recognising the parody, but the stories work without it and therefore don’t make you feel stupid.

That said, I found Snuff harder going than previous Discworld novels, and a bit darker and more heavy handed in the social commentary, focussing as it does on the race of Goblins, and whether they are considered sapient beings or vermin. This might be evidence of an author who despairs of the world, but it’s the social commentary in all the books that makes them so brilliant and poignant.

Samuel Vimes – the lead protagonist in Snuff – is a wonderfully complicated protagonist. Having read all the Discworld novels, I feel I have tracked his progress from a mere Captain of the Watch in Guards! Guards! to Commander Vimes, Sir Samuel, Duke of Ankh, married to Lady Sybil (also a brilliant character) in this book. Alongside my other favourite Discworld character, Granny Weatherwax, Vimes is fascinating for his level of self-awareness and his inner turmoil. Both are characters who battle with personal demons constantly and defeat the bad guys because they know (or at least fear) they’re no different underneath.

Although it took longer to get going, once I was immersed in the story I was swept along to the finish. Some of it was a little predictable (when you’ve read eight or nine books featuring the same character you do learn how they work) but being allowed inside Vimes’ head as he battled his past and his instincts resonated with me. Powerful, brave stuff.

Terry Pratchett has a writing style that doesn’t spell anything out. The nuances are there for the alert, and sometimes that can be frustrating (when you’re not alert, running on a few hours’ sleep!) As a writer, though, I feel it’s an important lesson in treating the reader as someone smart or, as one of my writing books puts it, Resisting the Urge to Explain (RUE). It also means you can interpret the characters and their actions, and be left wondering if you really know them all that well (particularly a character like Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork).

I find the Discworld novels always stay with me after I’ve finished them, with questions and challenges and difficult subjects (something I didn’t feel at all with Dodger). Snuff may not have been up there with the best, but it was still a rollicking good read. Bring on Raising Steam!

Faith and Father Christmas: 2013 365 Challenge #347

Meeting the man last Christmas

Meeting the man last Christmas

At dinner last night my friends and I discussed the challenge of maintaining the Christmas magic with our children. Do you lie? Evade, prevaricate? Are robins secretly Santa’s spies, identified by their red breasts? Or is the red flashing light of the security system Saint Nic keeping an eye on who is being naughty or nice? Do you have an elf on the shelf to watch over and guarantee belief and good behaviour?

And it got me thinking. In the end is it about magic, or is it about faith? Or even control. We talk of the magic of Christmas but it does seem it comes hand in hand with mild threats to ensure good behaviour. I read a quote on Goodreads once that compared belief in Father Christmas to belief in God:

“Be sure to lie to your kids about the benevolent, all-seeing Santa Claus. It will prepare them for an adulthood of believing in God.”
― Scott DikkersYou Are Worthless: Depressing Nuggets of Wisdom Sure to Ruin Your Day

I was reminded of the quote during my daughter’s Nativity this week. Towards the end, the audience stood to sing along with two carols. I love carols normally, and thought I knew them all, but was surprised by a verse in Once In Royal David’s City that I hadn’t seen before, containing these lines:

“Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.”
What's not to love?

What’s not to love?

 

Interestingly as I googled it for this post I found some versions of the lyrics without this verse, and some saying “should be” rather than “must be”. I’m clearly not the only person who struggles with the concept of telling my children to model their behaviour on baby Jesus, who had a helping hand in being a good child because he was the son of God and all that. And yet we tell our children to be obedient, mild, good, if they want Father Christmas to come. What mother won’t use everything at her disposal in those frantic weeks leading up to the big day?

Maybe that’s my problem with it all. I’m agnostic. My belief tends towards Nature or the Universe or some Spirit of Humanity, rather than an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being. I respect the idea of Faith in God – envy it sometimes – but don’t have it. My husband is atheist. So, between us, we don’t believe in invisible beings watching and controlling our lives.

Of course that didn’t stop me, last Christmas, saying a dozen times a day “Father Christmas is watching” although my aim was only to get them to smile. So, “Father Christmas is watching, show him your best cheesy grin.” It worked like a charm and staved off the teary tantrums of this time of year.

My daughter goes to a Church of England school and I’m okay with that. Christianity is more than a religion. It’s part of my country’s heritage. She should know the tenets of the faith so she can choose later what she believes, armed with some knowledge.

I make sure the kids know the real meaning of Christmas too

I make sure the kids know the real meaning of Christmas too

I went to a non CofE primary school until I was eight years old, and moved to where I live now. I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer or any hymns, and my school friends were amazed. I’m glad that my daughter will learn them, if only for when she goes to weddings as an adult!

Besides, religion teaches forgiveness and love and good deeds, and who doesn’t want their child to learn all that? My role, as I see it, is to temper the school’s teachings by allowing her to question what she learns (not that I’m even remotely qualified to answer her questions!)

However, if I let her challenge the stories of the bible, should I let her question the existence of Father Christmas? Already she doesn’t really seem to believe all that much. She said of her letter from Santa, “That’s really from you, Mummy, isn’t it?” and thankfully I didn’t actually have to lie because it came from a charity. Still it’s close to lying. She’s only four but I sense it won’t be long before she asks me outright if it’s all true. When that time comes, should I destroy faith, destroy the magic, or deceive a child and potentially break her faith in the honesty of a parent?

Daughter learns about Jesus at school

Daughter learns about Jesus at school

My good friend solved the dilemma by taking her child, at five years old, to Lapland to meet the man himself. Pricey but maybe worth it to preserve the magic. I wonder if even that would work for my little girl (particularly as she hates the cold and snow!) even if we could afford it.

And, if belief in Father Christmas is like religion, surely meeting the man defeats the object? Isn’t the whole point to have faith without evidence? Like the ironic line from Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, “Your faith was strong but you needed proof.”

(Incidentally, for some great discussions on faith and religion you can’t do better than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, particularly Carpe Jugulum. Granny Weatherwax’s best quote is this one:

“You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.” )

Anyway, we seem to be okay for now. She accepts the existence of baby Jesus, she accepts the concept of Father Christmas. She’s excited about getting gifts and spending time with the family, but mostly she looks forward to opening her chocolate advent calendar every day and can’t wait until the end of term. Exhausted and tearful and tired, I think she’s approaching the arrival of Christmas pretty much as I am: with relief!

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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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“Can I come and see you this weekend?”

There was an air of forced casualness in Conor’s words. Claire cradled the phone to her ear and looked out her bedroom window at the view down the hill to the sea. The hostel was a million miles away from the one in Swanage: clean, bright, modern, with comfy beds and duvets, and en-suite facilities. Despite the ache in her chest that told her she missed Conor, she was happy to be there by herself. Still the weekend was a few days away, who knew how she might feel by then.

“I don’t have to come, if you’d rather be alone.” Conor’s voice sounded strained and Claire felt a shiver run across her skin.

“Yes, of course you can come this weekend. Sorry, I didn’t mean to hesitate; I was just trying to work out which hostel I’ll be in by then.” A small white lie to take away the hurt.

“Why don’t you ring around for a private room and let me know what you find?”

Now his words made her shiver in anticipation and she smiled. “You’re on.”

“Grand. So, tell me about your day.”

Claire leant against the wall and chatted about surfing, and the hostel, and her call home to catch up with her nephews. It felt strange, talking about things outside work. Conor listened attentively, asking questions and adding his opinion. Claire realised it had been a long time since she’d had a grown-up conversation with someone other than Kim. As the thought drifted through her mind, she remembered that Kim had wanted to catch up with her after the Carnival.

“Damn.” Her outburst cut through Conor’s review of a band he had seen the week before.

“What is it?”

“I just remembered that Kim wanted me to visit her this weekend, because her sister is home from Hong Kong. What with everything, I completely forgot. She’s going to kill me, I haven’t even called. That’s two lots of people I’ve let down in as many weeks.”

“Sure but it’s my fault, Claire. I kept you busy with work for the Carnival and then, well…” He trailed off.

Claire put a hand to her forehead, trying to subdue the stabbing pain in her temples. “Look, I need to call Kim. Can I get back to you about the weekend?”

“Of course. Your friends need to come first, I’ll still be here.”

Claire couldn’t quite read his words. Was he not classing himself as a friend, or making a dig that she wasn’t putting him first? She shook her head. It was too hard to fathom. Wishing him a quick farewell, she hung up the phone then scrolled through for Kim’s number.

“Hello, stranger.” Kim answered the phone on the second ring.

“Hi, Kim. I’m so sorry I haven’t called sooner. The Carnival was manic.” She hesitated, unsure what to say about Conor. Before she could decide whether to mention it or not, Kim started talking again.

“It’s alright for some. I’d give anything to get back to work. I’m still waiting for the doctor to say I’m fit.” She gave an irate snort and Claire felt her heart sink into her stomach. The happy Kim she had spoken to a week before seemed to have vanished again.

“I’m sure it won’t be long,” she said in a soothing voice, wary of annoying Kim further. “Is Helena home yet?”

“Oh yes. The prodigal daughter returned this weekend, proudly displaying her bump.” Kim cackled and Claire thought the sound didn’t suit her. She didn’t like to hear her friend being nasty, even about her sister.

I guess it’s no different than how I feel about Robert.

“So she is pregnant then. How do you feel about that?”

“Sodding angry, to be honest. I lose my baby and get told I can’t have another one, and my sister gets up the duff with some bloke she barely knows. At least she’s decided to keep it. I don’t think I could stand it if she’d had a termination, whoever the fella is.”

The pain in Claire’s head stabbed sharper. She wanted to empathise with Kim, but what did she know of babies and wanting to become a mother? She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a girlfriend, never mind anything else. And the bitter jealousy in Kim’s voice was hard to take, however much she knew and sympathised with the cause.

“Do you still want me to come and visit?” Claire held her breath, hoping for an answer in the negative.

“Good God, yes. Come and save me from her sanctimonious preaching, please.”

Claire inhaled silently and deeply, and then had a brainwave. “Why don’t you both come down here? I’m in a charming hostel, five minutes from the beach, and the forecast for the weekend is gorgeous.” She hesitated, then plunged on. “And you can come hang out with my new man, if you like.” If Conor came to stay, she wouldn’t have to share a room with Kim and Helena.

“Claire, you old dog, you’ve been keeping secrets. Is that the real reason you’ve abandoned me. Come on, spill the beans. Who is it? Is it your boss? It is, isn’t it. You’re shagging the boss. Ha ha that’s priceless.”

Claire winced at Kim’s tone. “Yes, it’s Conor. If that’s how you feel, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to stay all in the same place. It’s not like we work in the same office or anything, so it’s not how you make it sound.”

“Oh get off your high horse, you muppet. If you like him then good on you. From what I can remember he was pretty dishy. Mind you, that might have been the drugs.” She laughed. “I’ll have a chat with Helena, but I’m sure she’ll agree. Anything to get away from Mum’s fussing.”

As Claire hung up the phone she wondered if it was too late to get a flight to the Maldives before the weekend.

***

Bringing Scenes to Life: 2013 365 Challenge #325

Satellite view of St Mawes Castle

Satellite view of St Mawes Castle

As part of my writing challenge this year, I have had to do a lot of research on the locations that Claire visits in Two-Hundred Steps Home, to make it plausible. Of course I could have made her journey entirely fictional, but that would have been considerably harder for me.

Because, while I can write dialogue in my sleep, I cannot visualise places. My brain, my imagination, doesn’t think in 3D or in colour.

Even when I’m reading a well-described fantasy novel, I struggle to picture the scene being described. And I’m okay with that.

I read for characters, for dialogue and stories and action. I’m not overly fussed about what a castle looks like, or how the armies are set out on the battlefield. Tell me a mystical city is beautiful and has spires and walkways, and that’s enough. No need to describe it in detail, I’ll only pull myself out of the story trying to build the picture in my mind, and get frustrated when I fail.

A house Claire could buy in Cornwall

A house Claire could buy in Cornwall

However, not everyone is like me, happy to exist inside a vague grey mist when they read. Some people like to be able to see the scene, to know the sea is visible in the distance, or whether the building is Georgian or Victorian or Modern.

Not only that; having characters exist in a three-dimensional space makes the action work. If a character is moving, even if it’s only drinking a glass of wine, it pulls the story forward.

My inability to visualise places used to be a major cause of writer’s block. I’d try and figure out what a character’s house looked like, and whether the phone was in the lounge, or if the post fell on the mat or into a box, and it would paralyse me.

Then I discovered the wonders of research and stealing appropriation, and I’ve never looked back. In the UK the main property website is Rightmove (although there are others). If I need a house for a character, I pop on Rightmove and find one.

Reviews on Tripadvisor

Reviews on Tripadvisor

I usually have an idea whether my characters live in a cottage or an apartment, what they might be able to afford, and I generally have a city or town or village in mind. When I’ve found the right one, (and pulled myself away from dreaming about cottages in Cornwall or houses in Wales) I print out the details (important because they disappear off the website when the house is sold, and are gone forever), and put it in a scrap-book.

In Finding Lucy, (my first, though still unfinished, novel), I have the floor plans and everything for Lucy’s grandmother’s house. I know where the TV is, and the telephones. I don’t worry quite so much about that level of detail now, although it is useful for adding depth to a scene.

For example, instead of “Lucy ran down the stairs to answer the phone,” I can write, “Lucy took the steep stairs two at a time, knocking her hip against the breakfast bar as she reached for the phone. She kept forgetting her grandmother’s cottage was so darn small.”

Another thing I’ve found useful is Google Streetview. Looking at a two-dimensional photograph of a location is useful, but it can be misleading. If you go to streetview, though, (assuming the location is covered), you can literally walk down the road and spin round for a 360 view. You can see that there is a cemetery across the road, or that the bus stop is dirty, or that there are cars parked all along the street.

Streetview of St Mawes car park

Streetview of St Mawes car park

You can even get an idea about the weather. For a recent scene in THSH, it had been sunny all day in the story. Then I “drove” the road out to the hostel, as Claire did in a towering rage, and the streetview photos had stacked clouds along the horizon. Hey presto, her rage is mirrored by the approaching storm.

Incidentally, for Baby Blues and Wedding Shoes, which is set in London, I actually visited the street where I had located Helen’s apartment. I walked her route to the tube station and sat in the park where she first thinks she might be pregnant. It added extra detail, such as the smells and sounds, and how close the buses got to the pavement. You can’t beat first hand research, but I’d have to put in a lot of miles to follow Claire’s journey around the UK!

Hostel Claire's in currently

Hostel Claire’s in currently

The final site I go to often for internet research is Tripadvisor, particularly for the places that Claire visits. I’ve never been to the Eden Project, Pendennis Castle or even Cornwall for that matter.

The YHA website has a few reviews and things to do, but for variety it helps to read a lot of different perspectives. Tripadvisor is how I found out that the Eden Project has a problem with queueing because of gift aid or how the English Heritage will ask you if you want to pay a thousand pounds for lifetime membership.

There isn’t a single activity that Claire has done, or a café that she’s visited, in the UK or New Zealand, that isn’t based on fact. I’ve even been known to check the opening times of the Starbucks and write the story around it! If you wanted to, with some planning, you could follow in Claire’s footsteps for about 95% of the story.

I try and get two or three reviews that agree before I write something (I’m always a bit worried about libel!) but it would be easy enough to make the place fictional, just to be safe. Reviews are brilliant, because they’re genuine and colloquial and so very varied. Two people can visit the same place, in the same week, and have completely different experiences, based on how easy it is to get in, the weather, who they are with, and their expectations. There’s half your story written, right there.

The world is at your fingertips, with a good internet connection and some patience. Sometimes it feels like cheating. But I prefer to call it research! 🙂

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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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“Hello, how’s it going? I thought I’d call and make sure you’re still alive. Or, more to the point, that your brother is. The look on your face when you left the restaurant was something to behold.”

Claire cradled the phone to her ear and looked across to see if the boys were listening. They appeared to be engrossed in some car show on the TV. Even so, Claire kept her voice low as she replied to her boss’s question.

“We’re all still alive. Just. Have you any idea how far you have to go to find a McDonalds in Cornwall? Robert’s gone back to Geneva.”

“With a flea in his ear?” She could hear the grin in Conor’s voice.

“I never understood that phrase. But if you mean did I let him know I was cross with him: I tried. Might as well attempt to chastise an elephant for all the good it did me.”

“And the boys? Do you think you’ll cope?” The tone of concern in his voice was almost masked by the humour, but not quite. It made Claire’s stomach twist and squirm.

“Jack will be fine. He’s a nice lad; open and enthusiastic, if a little eager to emulate his brother.”

“And the other one?”

“Alex. Hmmm. Let’s say he’s practising hard for his teenage years. If the chip on his shoulder gets any bigger he’ll fall out of his bunk at night.”

“Must be tough, not having a settled home at that age. He might even have girl trouble.”

“At twelve?” Claire’s voice rose, and Jack glanced at her before turning back to the screen.

“Oh, yes. Didn’t you say they were at boarding school? Is it mixed? Not that that matters. Twelve was about when I, well, never mind.”

“Twelve?” Claire felt the blood drain from her face. “Seriously?” She tried to remember how old she was when she first even noticed boys. Then she realised it wasn’t the conversation to have with her boss, and she coughed. “Anyway, if that’s it, I’m sure it will blow over. They’re only here for a fortnight.”

“Did you want me to come out with you guys tomorrow, help you ease into it a bit? I’ve got brothers and nephews; I might be able to help.”

The surge of gratitude warmed Claire from her toes to the tips of her fingers. Then she realised what impression it might give and the words of acceptance died on her lips.

“Think of it as a work assignment,” Conor added, apparently as an afterthought. “We can go visit a castle or something and take notes together.”

“Are you checking up on me?”

“Would I? No, you’d be doing me a favour, actually. I’m meant to be going to Mass in the morning, for the baptism of some random cousin in Birmingham. I can live without it. Mum thinks because I’m in the same country I should go.”

“Same country, yes, but Birmingham is miles away. Is that why you came to St Austell; to hide? You don’t have a work appointment at all, do you?”

“You’ve found me out, I confess,” he said, then fell silent.

Claire’s mind filled with conjecture. Escaping a Baptism seemed a flimsy excuse to drive all the way to Cornwall. She didn’t want to think about it too deeply, so she said, “Well, if you’re sure, that would be great. Thanks.”

They agreed a time and place to meet in the morning and hung up the phone. Claire curled into the corner of the sofa and let her mind wander.

*

Claire’s heart gave a little hiccup when she saw Conor strolling towards them. It had been a difficult morning already and it wasn’t yet ten o’clock. Alex and Jack had bickered non-stop over breakfast, and then Alex had refused to come with them to the castle, insisting he was old enough to stay at the hostel by himself. He tried to hide it, but Claire saw him with a phone clutched in his hand, and she began to suspect that Conor might have been right.

Damn him.

The boys had moaned all the way up from the car park and now, looking at the site from the outside, Claire thought they should probably have gone back to Pendennis Castle, on the other side of the water.

“Top of the morning to you.” Conor said in greeting as he approached, and Claire recognised the jovial Irish man act he’d put on for her mother, what felt like months ago.

She rolled her eyes at him, then gave him a meaningful look, trying to convey some sense of the morning they’d had. He gave a tiny wink, barely more than a crinkling of one cheek, and turned to face the children.

“Hello, I’m Jack.” Claire’s youngest nephew said brightly, holding out his hand. Conor shook it formally then turned to face Alex.

“And yer man must be Alex. Pleased to meet you.” Conor had the sense not to hold out his hand to be left hanging. Alex stood with his hands buried deep in his jeans pockets and stared at the ground. With a twinkle in his eye, Conor winked at Claire again.

“Shall we go in?” Claire said, leading the way to the entrance and trying to ignore Alex’s fit of the sullens. She’d hidden most of Robert’s money at the hostel, retaining enough to pay for their tickets and lunch. When she handed over the fifty-pound note to a suspicious cashier, Conor sidled up behind her.

“Big brother flashed the cash then? At least you haven’t got to pay for his grumpy kids as well.”

“You mean Alex? I think you might have been right,” she murmured. “He’s been clutching his phone like a lifeline all morning.”

“Ah, love’s sweet torment.”

She blushed hotly and she turned away in confusion. With a throaty chuckle, Conor moved to stand by Jack. She heard him ask about the boy’s home town and school, and felt able to breathe again.

Just what game is he playing?

Whatever it was, she wished she knew some of the rules.

***

Art is the Answer: 2013 365 Challenge #320

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Hubbie came home yesterday afternoon, after his night away for work, and was all smiles from the joy of having spent twenty-four hours with like-minded people, being listened to and appreciated. It seemed to confirm for me everything I wrote about in yesterday’s post, about the difficulty of being a stay-at-home-mum.

The word sacrifice is bandied about, sometimes, when talking about motherhood. The things we sacrifice to raise our children: sleep, serenity, the ability to pee alone. For some it’s a career, for others it’s the luxury of time or the ability to buy clothes for themselves instead of for their little ones.

And of course the sacrifice is worth it, most would agree with that. I gave up material things when we had kids, and realised I didn’t miss them. I’m quite happy hanging out in the same two pairs of jeans week after week, until they fall apart and I scour the charity shops for two new pairs to trash.

I’m happy not getting my hair cut, or spending endless money on scented candles and potted plants that will only get burnt/killed respectively. Hubbie gave me £100 to spend on clothes last Christmas and I spent about a fifth of it at the charity shop and then the rest on getting the air conditioning fixed in my car. It was money well spent.

The sacrifice for me was guilt-free time. I have always struggled with guilt (and I’ve noticed I’m unconsciously teaching my children the same things, which I hate). My father loathed idleness and I learned to never be idle, particularly if he was busy. He could aggressively vacuum clean like no man I know and god forbid the kitchen was messy if we wanted to get to gym class on time. So, if the house needs cleaning, I have to clean it. If there are shirts to iron, I must iron them. Walking the dog every day was a responsibility I took on the minute we brought her home, quivering in my arms in the front seat because she wouldn’t stay in the boot.

From Slow Down Mummy's FB Page

From Slow Down Mummy’s FB Page

Which is all fine until hubbie says, “How can we get your smile back? Shall we hire a cleaner?” and my answer is “No.” Cleaning is my job. I signed up for that when I gave up paid employment. Besides, as I said in my previous post, I find having a cleaner ridiculously stressful. No, the problem is more my inability to ignore the piles of laundry and the dirty floor and just write regardless. The cleaning will always be there: evil elves come in my house and chuck dirty water over the floor as soon as it’s mopped. It’s the ultimate exercise in futility. Writing, though, that’s there forever. If I write a novel, no one can take it away from me.

One of my blog followers, Hollis Hildebrand-Mills, commented on yesterday’s post, saying, “An artist, like you, I yearned for so much more……and at the same time, felt I was a good mother and wouldn’t trade places (who had the time to think about trading places?) with anyone else.”

It reminded me of a book I read, before I had children, called Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale, about a bi-polar woman and her life as artist, wife and mother. It is a wonderful, powerful, book. It showed me how I didn’t want to be with my children, and yet I could relate to such an extent with the conflicting desires of the need to create and the needs of the family, all wrapped up with the challenges of depression.

With martyr-tendencies, it would be easy for me to be the housewife: to go downstairs, like I did this morning, and numbly lay the table, make breakfast, let the dog out, empty the dishwasher, make the beds. But numb is the word. I can be that person, but by god she’s dull. I don’t need to become Rachel Kelly from Gale’s book (I thankfully am not bipolar, only very mildly depressive) but maybe it is important to make time for the creative things. To stay human. To stay sane.

From Slow Down Mummy

From Slow Down Mummy

There’s a meme that goes around Facebook every now and then: a poem about children asking their Mummy not to rush; about the importance of spending time with the children while they’re little, rather than doing the dishes. (See image above)

I’ve just searched for it and the poem is by Rebekah Knight and her blog is Slow Down Mummy. (There are some other lovely poems on there:  worth a visit) It’s a sweet poem, although I’ve always felt it just adds to the Mummy guilt, every time I see it and my usual response is, “If I don’t do those darn dishes, who will?”

I wonder if sometimes we also have to slow down and do something for us? Maybe I need to swap out the Mummy for Amanda and remember that there’s a real person in here that also needs nurturing, that also would like to kick the leaves or bake a cake; just for me, not because I feel I should for the children. My children are happiest when they’re creating – sticking, gluing, cutting, making up games and songs. As another of the images on Slow Down Mummy’s blog says, “Creativity brings Happiness.”

Maybe art is the answer after all.

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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 sat at the table, building her presentation, trying to ignore the stunning view outside the window. The tall frames only enhanced the scene beyond, of boats bobbing on the water and children playing in the sand. Sparkling diamonds danced on the surface of the sea, taunting her and tempting her to put the work aside and daydream.

She’d been surprised at Conor’s choice of restaurant when she’d arrived. It was a tiny place that appeared to have been a coastguard station at some point. The walk back up to the car park would be hard going after a beer or two. It seemed a bit secluded for a work meeting, and Claire had felt a fizzle of anticipation in her stomach as she was shown to their reserved table by the window. The view really was spectacular: the restaurant was right on the beach, with a view of the harbour and the bay beyond.

Claire’s tummy grumbled as a waiter walked past with a steaming pile of muscles and another loaded with lobster. She was glad Conor was paying, although she had to remind herself it wasn’t a date, it was business.

She turned her attention back to the presentation. The screen shots from the two websites nicely emphasised her point, and she’d managed to incorporate some transitions and graphics that looked impressive, although deep down she suspected Conor wouldn’t be as fooled by such things as Carl used to be.

The challenge of having a boss with a brain, I guess.

She was just running through the final slides when she sensed someone watching her. She turned and met Conor’s gaze as he stood only feet away, his expression inscrutable. A jolt of energy shot through her, and her hands shook as she closed the laptop. When she tried to smile, her cheeks quivered and she quickly abandoned the attempt.

“Conor, hi.” She chanced a quick look into his eyes and they seemed to hold a mixture of amusement and remorse. A hesitant smile hovered on his lips. Then his face shifted, like a mask dropping over his features, and he was her boss again.

“Hard at work, I see. That’s what we like. Did you have any bother finding the place?”

He slid into the seat opposite her and immediately picked up the menu, as if he couldn’t stay long.

“No. Sat Nav. And yes, I was just finalising a presentation. I’ve found a great case study I thought you might like to run through.” She heard the wobble in her voice and silently cursed. If he was going to pretend like nothing had happened the previous weekend, two could play at that game.

“Great, well let’s order and we can run through it while we’re waiting. I can recommend the lobster.”

“Do you come here a lot? It’s not exactly on your doorstep.”

“I was based down here for a few months in a previous job. This place is a gem, especially at sunset.”

It was on the tip of Claire’s tongue to make some comment about wooing the ladies and she stopped, blood rushing to her cheeks. Despite the air of romance, this couldn’t be further from a date, and their days of banter were gone now.

She looked at the top of Conor’s head, as he studied the menu, and searched her brain for something neutral to say. Her mind went blank, so she turned to her own menu, although her eyes refused to focus on the words.

“So, you’re playing Auntie for a fortnight? You’re a sucker for punishment.”

Conor’s tone was less than friendly, but Claire seized on the opening. “Yes, apparently my brother and his wife have separated and the boys are being shuffled from parent to parent during the long vacation. Needless to say my brother isn’t equipped to deal with his chunk of childcare.”

“Why do you say it like that?” Conor looked up, one eyebrow raised.

“Well, looking after kids isn’t really every man’s cup of tea.”

“Depends on the man,” he said, then dropped his head again. Claire sat staring, trying to figure out the meaning behind his words. Really, he was even more of an enigma that Josh, when he’d been harbouring his big secret.

“Do you have kids?” The words were out before she could stop them.

Conor froze, his head still lowered, then shrugged. “Not that I’m aware of.”

The waiter chose that moment to approach with his pad open, and Claire resisted the urge to embrace him for his impeccable timing.

***

E-Book Censorship – Necessary or a Slippery Slope?

The story as it unfolds

The story as it unfolds

Some worrying news has trickled through to me this week, through various sources, that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and particularly Kobo are censoring Self-Published/Indie Published books. As far as I can gather, from reading posts on Shannon Thompson’s Facebook wall – here and here – and through statements from Smashwords, the concern is specific types of erotica, such as incest or rape themed books, but may easily stretch into all Indie Publishing.

WH Smith, who sell Kobo books in the UK, took down ALL self-published books in response to criticism over some of the content they apparently unknowingly stocked.

Smashwords  also has this comment in their statement:

Going forward, I think we can expect this to become the new reality as major retailers set their sights on a global market where the cultural, religious or political norms in some countries will find certain categories of erotica too objectionable, or might find non-erotic categories that most western cultures consider mainstream as too objectionable.  This means we can expect more mess to come in the years ahead as the industry navigates ebook globalization [My emphasis]

Now I have to be honest, this isn’t a straightforward debate for me. My mind is surging with conflicting emotions. Paramount is the thought “Oh my goodness, if they start deleting Indie books, there goes my five-year plan. Amazon is already censoring reviews (I’ve had at least three reviews of my books deleted and lord knows how many more I don’t know about). I’ll have to give up writing and get a job.”

This might seem like an overreaction when I write books with no sex in them, never mind erotica. But, as Smashwords points out, this may well not just stop at erotica but might cover any area that’s considered taboo in a certain culture. Shannon points out on her blog that the legal age of drinking between the UK and the US is different, so might books featuring a teenager drinking be banned in the US?

First WH Smith then all KOBO

First WH Smith then all KOBO

Then of course comes the view that refusing to publish any kind of books is bad. It’s censorship, it’s against free speech, it’s harking back to the days of banning and burning books for not fitting in with the social mores of its time. As one commenter points out on Shannon’s blog, though, it isn’t actually against free speech, because these companies are businesses and have every right to sell what they choose. Even so, it still isn’t good news for Indie authors like me.

Ah, but then, a third voice pipes up: the voice of the parent. I’d happily see all porn banned on the internet: free speech or no. And if there are erotica books out there that favour or promote rape, then I am happy for them to be banned. (Remember this is only the parent talking, so no snotty comments about me being a bigot, thanks!)

I don’t want my daughter growing up in a world where people have had easy access to books promoting rape. There’s something about an idea being written down that gives it gravitas. You write about rape in a book, make it sound like a cool thing, and somebody somewhere is going to feel like that gives them a green light.

In an article on the Christian Science Monitor (which I found through Shannon’s blog) someone defends the erotica ebooks by saying:

“We outlaw snuff films, child porn and, increasingly, revenge porn, because actual people are harmed during their production,” wrote PJ Vogt on OnTheMedia.org.

“Erotic fiction concerns fake characters who don’t exist in real life.”

So it’s okay if it’s in a book, with fake characters? I should agree, yes of course. Except I’ve read books that have changed the way I think. They’ve actually rewired my brain to see the world a different way. That’s the power of fiction (as so beautifully argued in a lecture by Neil Gaiman recently:

When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

The On the Media article quoted above says that internet porn hasn’t increased actual instances of rape, and makes the assumption that literature won’t either. But if you look at Neil’s argument, the written word is more powerful than onscreen images, precisely because it happens inside the mind. It locates another ‘me’ in the world. Great if that widens the mind, not so great if it narrows it.

Neil also says, “We have an obligation [as writers] to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it” but that’s an entirely different argument against some of these books!

There is a petition on Change.org that I will probably sign, but I am having to think twice about it. The petition does say **This petition is NOT condoning non-fictional beastiality, incest, pediphilia or other things of such ‘extreme’ nature**. 

Non-fictional? What about fictional? Also, there are some views in the comments that I don’t agree with. For example someone says you need a credit card to buy the books, so you’re obviously over 18. Except what about the free sample? I’ve downloaded the first few chapters of plenty of books without having to pay for them, and many of them I wouldn’t want my daughter to read at any age.

It’s a difficult debate and I hate not knowing what side of the fence I sit on. If Amazon and other online retailers delete my books, I’m back to square one: trying to fight my way in through the agent/publisher route. And I believe we’ll all be the poorer for stopping the publishing revolution before it’s even got underway. However there is no doubt that there are books out there that ruin the image of self-publishing for all of us, never mind books I wouldn’t want my kids to have access to.

Where do you sit?

___

Let the Kids be Free: 2013 365 Challenge #275

Inventing ball games in the play room

Inventing ball games in the play room

The kids had a day off school yesterday, in our school at least, because one of the unions was on strike. I’m not here to talk about the politics, largely because I have conflicting views: I studied the nineteenth-century industrial revolution in history and I know how important unions were in ensuring safe and healthy working conditions and fair pay for workers. How unions work now I’m not so clear on.

I know teachers work impossibly hard – my friend, who has three children under six – doesn’t see her kids much in term time as she’s at school until 9 pm most nights and then marking until midnight.

I do know that it rankles that the school can close for a day with little warning and no compensation, forcing some parents to take a day’s leave or pay for extra childcare, but if I take my child out of school in term time I pay a £60 fine. Hmmm

Anyway, I said I wouldn’t discuss the politics. What I found interesting was how people chose to spend that day. My daughter is in Reception (I think Kindergarten in the US?), in her first week of full time school, so I knew it was going to be a down-day: one where she could do what she wanted, without worrying about rules or getting her uniform dirty or anything.

Playing shops

Playing shops

We hung out with friends, went to the park, baked cookies and did painting. My only rule was that she wash her hair (it’s long overdue) and even that resulted in tired tears. (To be fair, we’re all tired. Hubbie and I are dipping down into depression and the slightest thing sets me off sobbing. I feel like we’re all broken!)

That aside, I’ve learned recently that I’m more of a hippy parent than I ever knew. Because I want my child to be free as much as possible. I don’t want to do after school clubs and classes: I want her to be home, running with her brother, being as loud and messy as she wants to be. Plenty of time in the 6.5 hours of school five days a week to stick to the rules.

I’m sure, as she gets older, the balance will change. I want her to do well at school and in exams, as I did, although I want her to have more to life than just her education. For now, though, it makes me feel warm inside to see her playing ball games with her brother, or – as she did this morning – to sit quietly in her room for an hour playing doctors with her teddy bears while the rest of the house slept.

There was a woman in the park yesterday bringing (I’m guessing) her 7 or 8 year old grandchild for a play. It was around 2 pm and she proudly told a friend of mine that they’d already done flute, numbers, writing, piano, swimming, French (I can’t remember the exact list, but something like that) and now they were ‘burning off energy’. It made my soul ache.

Preparing for a rainy school run

Preparing for a rainy school run

Each to their own, and I’m trying really really really hard not to judge other styles of parenting than my own. But a whole new world has opened up to me, now I have been blessed with watching how my children interact and play when left to their own devices. How they comfort each other, sort out their own problems, find new games to play, take turns, share, apologise, teach and learn.

I loved school, I think my children will love school. But for the social aspect, as much for learning. We don’t come from a big family – their friends are all from school and nursery.

We went to the school curriculum evening recently and I have to say I wasn’t that thrilled with what’s to come for my children. Not the teaching – that all looks grand – but the building, the resources and, in some cases, the teachers. The building is old and dark, the classrooms dated and cluttered. The teachers seem rough and grumpy (and not one introduced themselves by name apart from the Reception teachers, who we already knew).

There aren’t so many alternatives round here. I’m going to the fee-paying school open day on Friday, but I’m pretty certain it isn’t what I want: I think there will be more rules, more activities, more expectations, fewer chances for down time, grazed knees, torn clothing, dirt and fun. Homeschooling isn’t the answer, because it’s the social element that’s important. Sigh.

I just have to remember that, whatever choices we make, the kids will be fine. In the meantime, we battle the rain, the parking fiasco, the chaos and commuter-like experience of the school run and hope we’re doing the right thing.

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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 regarded the airport through heavy eyes, expecting it to look different somehow. Surely the world had shifted on its axis during the long weeks she had been away?

Around her, people greeted loved ones, hurried towards men holding name cards, or – like her – shuffled head down through the waiting crowd, knowing no one was there to meet her.

Why would they be? No one even knows I’m arriving today.

Claire adjusted the straps of her rucksack and looked around for signs to the train station, hoping she could catch a direct train to Cambridge. Her first priority was getting to Kim.

Through every minute of the thirty-two endless hours it took to get home, concern for Kim had kept her from sleep. During the stopovers at Sydney and Dubai, with no iPad for company and no money for food, she had sat cradling her phone praying for news.

There had been just one text from Jeff, telling her that Kim was scheduled to spend a few days in the hospital so the staff could ensure she didn’t make a second attempt on her life. Jeff had had to fight to stop her being transferred to a secure facility.

Poor Jeff. Poor Kim.

That was as far as Claire could think. Her own role in her friend’s drama ate at her like a cancer, until she too felt an eternal sleep might be preferable to continuing to live every painful day.

Hanging in the limbo of a long-haul flight, lost to the world and unconnected to anyone in it, it wasn’t difficult for Claire to imagine what drove her friend to her desperate act. Anything to make the emptiness go away.

The darkness pursued her now, as she shouldered her way through the happy faces. A lump lodged in her throat and she longed for solitude, so she could break down in peace.

“Claire!”

The voice brushed at her back, but she refused to turn and realise it was not her being hailed. Footsteps ran along after her, and she jumped as someone touched her arm.

“Claire, wait! I can’t believe you came through just as I was getting coffee. I thought you might like this.”

Turning slowly, Claire’s eyes opened wide as she took in the reality of her boss standing in front of her holding out a giant cardboard cup.

“Conor. What are you doing here? How did you know I was landing today?”

Thoughts and emotions crashed in her mind like waves in a stormy sea. With numb fingers she accepted the coffee, the aroma seeping into her fuddled brain with all the comfort of home. When did she last have a proper latte?

“I follow your social media. Someone called Jeff wished you a safe flight home, said he’d see you today. It wasn’t hard to figure out which flight you were on, there aren’t so many from Christchurch.”

Claire stared mutely, wondering if it was her destiny to be surrounded by stalkers. The last person to track her down through social media had been Michael. Honesty forced her to admit that her ex-boyfriend’s tenacity had proved useful, rescuing her from a night passed out in a dark lane with a bump to the head. And now her future boss had come all the way to the airport from Dorset, on the strength of a Facebook update.

“Are you for real? What are you doing here?”

“You said that already.” Conor grinned. “Come and sit down, you look bloody awful.”

The words hit Claire like a blow, and the tears began to pour out as if the force had broken a pipe. She felt Conor guide her to a bench and sit her down, taking the coffee from her limp grasp.

For a while they sat and Claire rode out the wave of sadness and humiliation. At last she became aware of a tissue being offered underneath her curtain of unwashed hair. Accepting it, Claire dried her face and blew her nose.

“Sorry. I wasn’t expecting anyone. You broke down the barrier, damn you.”

“What happened? I thought you were having a great craic in New Zealand. Your blog posts and texts were all about sky diving and rafting, getting drunk and all that. You look like you’ve been in a concentration camp. Did you forget to eat?”

Claire shook her head, unsure whether Conor was berating her or trying to make her feel better. She couldn’t think. She wanted him to go away, but didn’t want to be alone. Feeling the tears building again, Claire dug her nails into her arms, wishing she could rip her skin off and fly into oblivion.

As if sensing Claire’s distress, Conor patted her knee. “Come on, let’s get you out of here. Where do you need to be? I am at your service.”

“Shouldn’t you be at work?” Claire’s voice sounded heavy, the words hard to speak. Suddenly she just wanted to sleep.

“It’s Sunday afternoon, I don’t have to head back for a few hours. Where can I take you?”

“Cambridge. I need to be in Cambridge.”

Claire saw Conor’s nod through her curtain of hair. He rose abruptly and tugged her to her feet.

“Cambridge it is. Here’s your coffee. Drink it, you look like you need it. And a shower.” He sniffed, dramatically. “You definitely need a shower.”

He grinned and, through the numbness, Claire managed to raise a smile.

***