Christmas is a Lot Like Writing: 2013 365 Challenge #360

Happy faces at filled Santa Sacks

Happy faces at filled Santa Sacks

And so another Christmas Day draws to a close. Hubbie is watching Star Wars on the TV, the children are fast asleep, the house is littered with piles of new possessions and the dog is slumped exhausted on our feet.

It’s been a wonderful day. The sun shone brightly from a warm sky, without a breath of the predicted storms and gales. Aside from a small panic attack (literally – hubbie tells me it was quite impressive) when Santa’s Little Helper discovered some gifts hadn’t made it into daughter’s bag, as she opened her last present, all was well.

Some swift thinking (“Why don’t you go and bring Mummy’s gift upstairs, children?”) and the hiccup was skimmed over. We rode through the tantrums and tears, the whining and the “want more”. We walked to the park and enjoyed being the only ones there. Our daughter opened nearly every gift with the words, “It’s exactly what I wanted but forgot to ask for!” (Funnily enough the abacus didn’t get much interest) and our son just about grasped the concept that some of the gifts under the tree weren’t for him.

For the first time in a long time, every gift was just right. All the hours spent worrying and researching, buying and wrapping, were rewarded with smiles and thank yous and happy children. All the time spent preaching gratitude and patience seemed to pay off. Prior discussions on gift opening strategies were mostly adhered to and the only change to the plan turned out to be the right one.

Planning gift opening for max enjoyment

Planning gift opening for max enjoyment

Gifts were opened and played with, rather than instantly discarded for the next unwrapped box. That, more than anything, made me happy. The day became about more than just getting stuff, it became about sharing family time and having a giggle.

We played Three Little Pigs, and blew each other’s houses down. The children did some Christmas Jammin‘ (my rock star kids!) and shot cars across the room with the gravity loop. They painted pictures and did craft. It was an interactive day and I loved it.

All of it got me thinking about how planning for Christmas Day is a lot like writing a novel: You put in days and days of hard work, and the output is ‘consumed’ in a few hours. You wonder whether the effort was appreciated, but you know that the lasting memories are created by the attention to detail. Not just the grammar and punctuation, polishing and editing (think wrapping and tag writing) but also the understanding of character, the manipulation of plot (or taking note of wants and likes, and strategic gift-opening order). Details that go unnoticed but enhance the experience and enjoyment.

And, like writing a novel, the echoes last long past the consumption. We don’t have many photographs from the day today, because for once I wanted to participate rather than record, but even blurry snaps of happy faces tell a story. This Christmas was one where I put all the effort in upfront and then let the recipients connect it together into an experience. Hopefully it was a happy one for all. It certainly feels like a job well done.

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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 looked out over the cloud-draped hills of Glastonbury Tor and sighed. It was beautiful. A different beauty to Cornwall, although she couldn’t put her finger on exactly why. Driving down the lanes, the roads were wider, the hedges lower. Even the trees seemed different in Somerset; tamer somehow.

Now I am being silly. Counties are artificial boundaries. The trees don’t know whether they’re Cornish or not.

Yet there was a difference. As she travelled back towards Dorset, ready to deliver her final report, she felt the pull of the Cornish coast like a cord attached somewhere beneath her ribs. No matter how hard she tried to rationalise the sensations, they refused to be controlled. Dorset or Cornwall, there was nothing and everything in it, and it had sod all to do with the trees.

The sky along the horizon darkened, despite the sun directly overhead, and long legs of rain stalked across the hills, pulling the clouds down to earth. It matched the heaviness in her heart. It had been nearly two weeks and still there had been no response from Conor. She told herself she didn’t want to date a sulker anyway, but it didn’t lessen the pain. Instead she’d buried herself in the report, making sure every last detail was correct. It stretched to hundreds of pages, and the presentation she was to give in a week lasted an hour.

How am I going to stand for an hour and talk, with him watching?

She shuddered. That was why you didn’t fraternise with colleagues or bosses. It always went wrong in the end.

Well, he won’t be my boss or my boyfriend from next Friday. This time next week I’ll be starting a new life, with Timothy and Gemma, Louise and Eddie and all the others.

It wasn’t exciting. Petrified was probably a closer description and every day started with a rehearsed conversation to Timothy explaining that she’d changed her mind.

Claire turned and got back into her car. It was only a short distance to the next hostel and she was keen to check in before the stalking rain reached her. She wondered if the concert that evening was under cover.

The world rolled away like a rumpled blanket as she drove along the lane, passing stiles and footpath signs that called to her to walk the hills and get wet. She fought her maudlin mood, determined not to succumb. She hadn’t realised how much she’d come to rely on the daily messages and calls from Conor, until they stopped. But with her attempt at a peace-offering rejected, her pride prevented her repeating the gesture.

Is that why I’m going to a gig? To show that I can enjoy loud music and crowds without him?

She wasn’t sure why, only that when she’d seen the poster and realised it was that evening, she’d had to go.

*

Claire viewed the multi-peaked blue and yellow striped tent with relief. As the clouds jostled for room in the sky above, and the rain began to fall, it was good to know there would be some shelter from a storm.

All around, people walked with golf umbrellas threatening the eyes of their neighbours, or coats held high above styled hairdos. Girls in short shorts and tight t-shirts wandered alongside blokes with crates of beer cradled in their arms. Turning up the collar of her waterproof jacket, Claire let the rain cool her skin.

At least I don’t have to worry if my hair turns into a ball of frizz. How nice to have outgrown the days of being on the pull.

The sound of the first band warming up filled the night air, as bodies crammed under the striped pavilion. Claire could see the stage in the distance; a rectangle of colour and light calling everyone forwards to join the party. Hanging outside away from the crush, Claire watched the milling people, feeling removed from their tanned skin and immaculate make-up by more than a few extra years.

Am I going to be able to relate to disadvantaged children? What do I know of their lives? I’m old before my time: look at me, with my sensible coat and shoes, drinking water and staying away from the noise? I feel like I’m in my thirties. When did I get so ancient?

As evening fell, the bonhomie expanded, travelling through the crowd by osmosis, until the beat and the laughter could be felt even at the edge of the enclosure. It seemed to flow around Claire as if she were a rock in a stream.  Deep in the crowd she saw people on their partner’s shoulders, rocking to the music.

A loud crack rent the air and she jumped. Her hammering heart drowned out the music as she spun round, trying to locate the source of the noise. She was just in time to see a long fork of lightning strike the ground behind her.

The power of nature drove through her, leaving her shaking, and she ducked under the cover so as not to be an easy route to earth for the next strike. Instinctively she looked around for Conor, to make sure he was okay, and her face fell when she remembered those brief days of companionship were over.

Damn you, Conor. Damn your stupid male pride and your fickle, grasping, ex-wife.

Claire stepped back out from under the canvas, no longer concerned whether she was a target, and let the rain wash away her tears.

***

Wishing you a Contented Christmas: 2013 365 #359

Meeting the man

Meeting the man

This morning I  left the house to walk the dog just as the skies cleared, after days of stormy weather. It felt like a fresh start: like the feeling I get after I’ve been crying for hours feeling terrible and I stop, breathe, and give myself a break. When I look around and say it’s fine and, despite some puddles and other damage, the storm might never have been.

I spent last night having a long conversation with my hubbie and stepdad about parenting, depression, anxiety and life in general. It came after reading two interesting posts: The first was a viral one on WordPress about marriage not being for you but for others. It included these words:

[M]arriage isn’t for yourself,you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married

The second post, which I discovered via Annie Cardi’s blog, discussed forgiving Past You for not being as good as Present You. Two quotes stood out in the article:

Past You may not be as awesome as Present You, but Past You worked really hard to get to Present You, too.

And

The world does enough beating us up, […] We don’t need to do the beating up ourselves. Inside your head should be a safe space to make mistakes, to grow and change and learn, to find acceptance, forgiveness, and kindness.

As often happens, all these sources of inspirational thought combined in my mind to give me the ghost of a feeling. The feeling that’s been echoing around my head is one of grace; of being kind to yourself and looking out rather than in.

Christmas all wrapped up

Christmas all wrapped up

I’ve spent much of this year, and longer, beating myself up for all the people I’m not, for all the things I haven’t achieved, for not becoming a better parent, a better person, despite wanting to be. But you know what? The excuses become a thing in themselves.

If I feel bad then that’s okay because I’m taking responsibility for my own actions. But what if there’s a better way? What if you can forgive Past You for the things that didn’t happen because, quite frankly, Past You was doing her best under difficult circumstances.

What if taking responsibility is over rated and we just have to stop thinking about it at all so much? What if the past were erased and we had to start fresh from today, with the saviour’s birth?

I listened to Mary J Blige on the radio, on Sunday, discussing how her Faith saved her, and I envied her. What do you do without Faith or Belief? Who do you turn to to tell you there’s a grand plan, and you’re doing fine and, besides, all is forgiven in the end?

My husband is my rock, he says all those things, but I don’t always believe. What if I decided to have faith in him, in us? What if I got up every day knowing I was going to do my best, even if my best on that day involved a lot of shouting and some tears? But instead of failing as a parent, as a human being, I was just being one in the best way I knew how? What if I could learn to celebrate the successes, not dwell on the failures?

I feel a new blogging theme coming on. I may take January off from the internet, to recover and recoup. But from February I might try to make this blog a place for positivity. Not glossing over the bad stuff, because too many people do that. But if my best positive note for a day is “no one died”, well then at least it might make people smile, and that’s good too.

So a very contented Festive Season to you all, whatever this time of year means to you. I hope you enjoy your family day, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It will be what it will be and then it will be Boxing Day (in the UK at least). Let’s acknowledge the moments and move on. Christmas is about children so let’s learn to live like them. In the now, with much laughter.

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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 looked around the table at the eclectic group of people and couldn’t help smiling. Their good humoured banter and jibing was infectious as they discussed their first aid course. While they chatted she tried to work out who was who.

Timothy sat opposite her, at the head of the table; every inch the lord of the manor or the patriarchal leader. To his left sat Gemma, the chef. She looked like a school matron, as if her mission was to make sure the world was well fed and received plenty of hugs.

Next to her sat Louise, the site manager. They’d met before dinner and Claire found she liked her, although she was more used to working for men. Louise had explained that she lived off-site with her husband and two small children. Claire wondered how she managed to juggle it all.

Next to Louisa sat the only other older gentleman there; he was the gardener apparently and had been working in the grounds all day, rather than attending the first aid course. She thought his name was Giles or Geoff, but as he hadn’t said two words during the meal, she wasn’t entirely sure.

On the other side of the table sat the younger members of the staff. They were the entertainment during the meal, and Claire was fascinated, trying to fathom the different relations between them. The three in charge of activities – Jess, Eddie and Ryan – seemed to have some sort of love triangle going on, while the youngest member of staff sat wide-eyed and silent. Fresh out of school, it was her responsibility to keep the house clean and do the laundry. Claire thought she possibly had the hardest job of all.

As she assessed the people around the table, who were all tucking into the delicious lasagne and homemade cake, Claire wondered why she was paying them so much attention. Was she trying to imagine herself as part of the group? Could she?

I’m not really a team player – Carl told me that often enough.

But for all their jibing and barbed jokes, these people were not Polly, Molly and Sally. There didn’t seem to be any face: what you saw was what you got. Claire found it both refreshing and intriguing.

A hush fell over the table and she realised everyone was looking at her expectantly. “I’m sorry, I was miles away!” She felt the blood rushing into her cheeks.

Timothy laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m sure we’re a lot to take in, the first time you meet us.” He turned to Louise, who it seemed had asked her a question.

“I only wondered if you could imagine joining us here? We open next week, so we’re keen to have the staff finalised.” She seemed to realise how much she was putting Claire on the spot, and gave an apologetic smile. “But of course you need time to decide.”

Claire felt wrong-footed. Was the job just hers for the asking? With no interview or credentials. “But you don’t know anything about me,” she blurted out, and winced as everyone laughed.

“Ah but we do.” Timothy’s voice cut through the laughter and he frowned slightly at Eddie, who was still sniggering. “Maggie sent us a link to your blog. We’ve all read about your exploits, both here in the UK and in New Zealand. We are most impressed. Climbing mountains, white water rafting, surfing and sailing: you are more than qualified.”

“But I don’t know how to do any of those things.” Claire’s voice was more of a wail and she fought the urge to cry. Now everyone watched her as if she were a bomb about to explode. The young girl to her left gave her a sympathetic smile and Claire felt foolish. If a mere child fresh out of school could come and get stuck in, then what was holding her back?

“Don’t worry, lass, none of the kids will know how to do it either, so they’ll just be impressed you know more than them.”

Claire looked towards Eddie as he spoke and envied the confidence of youth. He had an edge about him, though, that suggested he’d seen as much of the world as she had, and possibly more.

Dinner continued without further incident. Claire sipped at her beer and enjoyed the sense of good will. During it all, something nagged at the back of her mind. An ache, a twinge, that tugged at her and wouldn’t let go. Conor. She tried to picture him here, amongst the motley staff, and knew he would be instantly at home.

That’s assuming he ever speaks to me again.

*

Claire looked out the window at the setting sun. The room Timothy had shown her to perched high in the attic. It wasn’t very big, but the view was enormous, stretching across the parkland to the sea. He’d explained that the staff rooms were all in the attic, with tiny en-suites. It was only a step away from hostelling, but it felt good to close the door and know the space was all hers.

She lay back on the bed, and her view diminished to a blue rectangle of sky visible through the skylight window. She imagined lying in the dark looking up at the stars. There would be no light pollution out here.

Slowly, as she absorbed the details of the room, Claire realised she was already viewing it as hers. Despite avoiding any kind of definite answer at dinner, she had gone as far as to say that her contract finished in a fortnight. A proper answer would need to be given before that, but she didn’t feel ready. Saying yes to Timothy felt like saying goodbye to Conor.

Reaching for her phone, Claire sat staring at the black screen that still refused to produce a message from him. She inhaled deeply.

“Sod it.”

Swiping the screen, she tapped out a message and hit send before she could change her mind. She looked at the words and wondered if they would be enough.

I miss you

***

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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.

***