Hot off the UPS delivery truck all the way from the USA via Dubai to Johannesburg to Cape Town to me! At last, the author copies of my new novel have arrived. They seems to have been on a little book tour of their own since I ordered them from Amazon on 6th December.
But never mind. They’re here now and I’m very pleased with the look and feel of them. And the smell. Don’t you just love that when you open a brand new book?
I gave you a little opening excerpt from the book to whet your appetite last week, but today I have something special to tempt you with. It’s the recipe for Auntie Rose’s vegetable curry, which she uses to fill her famous rotis. I took a tiny peek over her shoulder when she was last making them.
Auntie Rose is always cooking up a storm. Maybe she’ll bring out her own recipe book some day!
In the latest stop on our literary tour through the pages of my novels, we’re taking a trip up the west coast of South Africa to a small town called Laaiplek, situated where the Berg River meets the Atlantic Ocean. This is the spot where my latest novel, Song of the Sea Goddess was conceived.
A visit to Mike Harvey’s lovely River Tides guest house just after New Year has become something of a tradition for us, although sadly our sundowners with Mike have had to be postponed this year with beaches and rivers out-of-bounds and travel between ‘hot-spots’ actively discouraged. But we will return.
Here I am, back in January 2019, sitting on the shady bench on the right hand side of the photo, busy with pen and notebook, during our customary short summer break. I might well have been writing the very words that eventually evolved into the first chapter of the book, which started as a short story involving Sam the fisherman and his little boat, Porcupine.
Sitting by the banks of the broad brackish Berg River, fishing boats periodically put-putter past. It was easy to start to imagine a story about one of them. A little blue-painted fishing boat, which I watched throttling past the old fish-processing factory as it set out on an evening voyage, captured my imagination.
I know from reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, that night-time is the right time to catch octopuses, using a little olive oil to ‘calm troubled waters’ and a light to attract them. But then, once Sam had caught his two octopuses, I desperately wanted to save them because, as we all know, they are at least as intelligent as dogs, and I really couldn’t bring myself to let them be despatched. And so the fantasy was created and the adventure begun.
Some of you might remember the original short story from when I put it up on my blog almost exactly two years ago, although it has undergone some reworking and refinement since then. But the essence of the place remains unchanged, for who could fail to be inspired by a location like this?
“Many ghosts of ships and men haunt Laaiplek. A place of adventure and romance.“ ‘Coast of Treasure’ by Laurence G. Green (1932)
Excerpt from ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’
Sam casts off from the jetty in his little fishing boat, Porcupine. The last orange and gold sunset slivers are disappearing behind the blue-grey hills on the far horizon as he pushes the throttle forward and eases little Porcupine out into the broad brackish river that leads to the ocean.
Gulls wheel noisily overhead, their keening cries eerie in the twilight. The twin lighthouses blink at each other on either side of the bay. Sam pushes the throttle forward another notch against the growing sea swell. He runs his work-roughened hands around the little boat’s steering wheel and sets his course along the coast, inhaling the sharp sea air.
Sam grew up on the Cape Flats. Life had been hard there; it still is. But he’s escaped. He had to. On the run from members of an opposing gang, he got on the road and hitched up the West Coast. He slept rough; got work, casual stuff; then things started to look up. He found a broken-down little boat one day when he was exploring the shoreline for salvage. Slowly he fixed it up with the help of a retired ship’s engineer called Jannie, who spends his days giving advice and watching the activity in the little harbour by the river mouth.
Sam and Porcupine make a great team. He’s brought the little boat back to life and in return she gives him safe shelter and a means to make a living from the bounty of the ocean. Tonight he’s fishing for octopus, which is best done at night with a lamp and a little can of vegetable oil to make a window in the waves. He rounds the coast to his favourite cove and drops anchor.
Night comes quickly, and within half an hour Sam has two good-sized octopuses in his fishing bucket. He shifts a little on the makeshift perch of his old sleeping blanket, propping his back against the wheelhouse. Sam has been busy helping out in the harbour all day. He feels the stiffness of a hard day’s work; he’s tired. Lulled by the bobbing boat, Sam slips away into a glorious slumber.
He is awakened by the sound of voices. Someone’s on the boat!
‘Concentrate,’ says the first.
‘I am concentrating,’ says the second, rather indignantly.
Sam holds up the lamp. ‘Who’s there?’ He stands up and turns around sharply. There’s no one. He walks around the little deck, holding up the lamp and peering out into the inky ocean. Then he hears them again.
‘Over he-re,’ the voice calls in a sing-song voice.
‘Over he-re,’ joins in the second voice in a deeper tone.
Sam spins around. Where are the voices coming from?
‘Coo-e,” calls the first voice.
Suddenly a jet of water spurts out of the fishing bucket, wetting Sam’s feet. A tentacle waves at him. ‘Coo-e.’ It waves again.
Sam crouches down by the bucket. The two octopus heads bob up, their eyes fasten upon his. ‘What the…?’ Each of them winks at him. ‘No!” Sam stands up and takes a step backwards. More tentacles appear, waving at him. Sam shakes his head.
‘Let us go!’
‘Please, mister fisherman!’
Sam approaches the bucket again. He squats down. ‘No man. Fish don’t talk.’
‘We’re not fish,’ says the first voice indignantly.
Sam rubs his eyes; he pinches himself.
‘You’re not dreaming, you know.’ A tentacle extends towards Sam’s arm and prods him gently. ‘This is real.’
‘Tip us out and let us go,’ sings the first voice.
‘And lots of treasure you will know,’ choruses the second.
It’s as if someone has taken over control of his body. Sam picks up the bucket and steps over to the side of the boat where he gently inverts it. As the two octopuses slide into the sea, a huge wave breaks over the boat, knocking Sam flat on the deck. The empty bucket lands next to him with a clatter. Porcupine bobs about like a cork, and suddenly dozens of octopuses appear above the waves. As Sam tries to find his feet, a vast tentacle reaches onto the deck and grabs the bucket, swiping Sam across the head and knocking him out cold.
We all know what a strange and troubling year 2020 has been and I understand that for some people the trouble and turmoil has prevented them from reading. Not so me. Books have always been my escape. From that first year in high school when I turned to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ stories to get me through, I’ve buried my nose in a book to remove myself from reality.
The same goes for my writing, although I find that grappling with a novel is harder when my mind lacks a certain level of tranquility, but once immersed in that special writing zone, I am completely transported. And so this year, I have one novel on the point of publication and another one already up and running.
The final quarter’s books
Since the end of September, when I completed the #ArmedWithABingo challenge, this is what I’ve read.
I read even more widely this year, partly due to the Armed with a Bingo challenge and partly in response to the recommendations of others. I continue to try to support fellow indie authors and twenty of the books were written by indies, including four volumes of poetry by writers I’ve come across on WordPress.
Contrary to previous years, more than half the books I read this year were physical books. This is mainly because I told myself that before I bought any more, I should read some of the ones that had been sitting unread on my shelves, which are mostly acquisitions from second-hand bookstores (a favourite haunt of mine). But there were a few new releases that I just had to buy as paperbacks. In particular, Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (my two most favourite authors). The latter was absolutely the best book I’ve read this century!
Onward to 2021 then. My TBR pile is tottering, but I’m happy to take more recommendations if you’d like to offer them. Drop them in the comments below!
Today’s stop on our literary tour through my novels takes us to a specific location in South Liverpool. Grade 1 listed Speke Hall has a fascinating history, and a whole novel could have been constructed around a number of events associated with the house and its inhabitants. However, it purely serves as a backdrop to my story.
My familiarity with the building is connected to the tea-rooms there, and not just for the coffee and cake, although as any writer knows, that would be reason enough. It was, among a number of venues, where I used to meet with members of my team to conduct their appraisals. We were all home-based workers, probably some of the first back in the early noughties, and following a remark from one of my neighbours about the number of ‘gentleman callers’ I’d had to my house, I realised that having home-based meetings was probably not such a good idea. Hence I came to know the nearby tea-rooms at Speke Hall rather well. Not all the meetings were easy, but the lovely setting made the whole business a little less stressful, and allowed my reputation to recover.
Speke Hall is a beautiful old manor house, with parts dating back to Tudor times, and it’s just the kind of place that wicked Lord Childecott, the antagonist in Following the Green Rabbit, might have lived, although I had to whisk it away to the next county for the purposes of my story. In addition, the estate’s former farm buildings, which were converted into the tea-rooms, could quite easily have served as one of the outbuildings in which Mr Eyre was imprisoned by the evil Lord, if you picture them without windows and with a thatched roof, as they probably would have been in the past.
I was deliberately vague about the time-period in which the novel was set in order to avoid becoming embroiled in too much historical research, but we’re somewhere in the late sixteenth century. Like William Norris, a Royalist, who lived in Speke Hall at the time, Lord Childecott would be suspicious of both the French and the Jacobites. Of course, my antagonist is suspicious of any stranger, but to tell you more would give the game away if you haven’t read the novel.
I had in mind the Great Hall with its grand fireplace and oak paneling, as the setting for the scene below.
Excerpt from ‘Following the Green Rabbit‘
Up at the Manor House, Lord Childecott was getting nowhere with his new prisoner. Despite his best efforts, Mr Eyre was failing to co-operate. True, he hadn’t resorted to violence yet, and that was always a possibility. His chief enforcer, Smiler, so named because of his lack of teeth, was a dab hand with the thumb screws and other less than dainty tools. However, he had a feeling that such methods would only work if Eyre was to watch them being applied to someone he cared about. If local gossip was true, then he knew just who that would be.
Lord Childecott paced the room while Mr Eyre sat patiently on the chair to which he had been bound. Since his capture that afternoon, he’d been locked up in a dusty outbuilding. He had tried to find a way out, but although he’d succeeded in freeing himself from the ropes which tied his hands and feet, escape from the building had proved impossible. Now it was evening. He was hungry and thirsty and he was facing his captor and his questions.
“I’ll ask you again, Eyre, where are you from?”
“And I’ll tell you again. I came from the other side of the wood.”
“You were on my land and that’s forbidden.” Lord Childecott glared at him. What do you want here?” He strode over and fingered Mr Eyre’s jacket. “And why are you so strangely dressed?”
Had his hands not been bound to the chair, Mr Eyre would have raised them in a gesture of exasperation. “If I told you where I’m from, you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Try me,” Lord Childecott snarled, an inch from Mr Eyre’s face. Mr Eyre tried to avoid grimacing at the stench of Lord Childecott’s rotten-toothed breath.
“I believe I’ve come from the future. More than two hundred years in the future, judging by what you’re wearing and the style of the buildings here,” Mr Eyre replied glancing around the room.
“Don’t trifle with me, Eyre.”
“I’m not. Look, you say I’m strangely dressed. This is how gentlemen are accustomed to dress in the first decade of the twentieth century. Look in my pocket” he indicated his jacket pocket. Childecott didn’t move. “Well, go on, look.”
Childecott reached into Mr Eyre’s pocket and brought out the Box Brownie.
“That’s called a camera. It’s a new invention. Something from the future,” said Mr Eyre. “It takes pictures, likenesses if you will.” Mr Eyre thought for a moment. “Like an automated artist.”
Childecott turned the camera over in his hands. He put it to his ear and shook it. “In this little box?”
“Do be careful with that,” Mr Eyre pleaded.
Childecott tossed the camera onto a nearby couch where it rolled over and came to rest on its side. “I don’t believe you. Some foreign toy, no doubt,” he sneered. “Now, who are you working for? The Jacobites? The French?”
“I’ve told you. I’m not working for anyone and I’m not a spy. I’ve told you what I believe has happened.”
“Enough! You are trying my patience.” Lord Childecott thought for a moment, then turned to one of his men who was standing by the door. “Lock him up again and fetch Martha Stebbins, I’m sure we can give you an incentive to talk once you see what Smiler here can do to your friend Mistress Stebbins.”
Two of Lord Childecott’s enforcers untied Mr Eyre, then taking him firmly by the arms, frog-marched him from the room.
“No! No!” He struggled against them wildly. “You leave Martha out of this. I…” At Lord Childecott’s signal one of the guards stuffed a grubby piece of material in to Mr Eyre’s mouth and he could speak no more.
As the two enforcers dragged the struggling Mr Eyre across the courtyard and back to the barn, he noticed a flash of movement behind the Manor House. The guards, however, were too preoccupied with trying to manoeuvre their resisting captive to notice the two boys watching from the other side of the yard. Mr Eyre was manhandled through the barn door, all the time protesting through his gag. One of the men yanked it out of his mouth.
“Go on, you can yell all you like out here. No one will hear you.” He laughed and heaved the door closed, dropping the heavy wooden plank into place and barring the door shut.
Mr Eyre got to his feet and started to hammer on the door with his bound hands, bellowing at the top of his voice to be released.
“Right then, we’d better go and fetch old Martha,” the guard said to his companion as they stomped off, leaving Mr Eyre cursing and yelling and banging on the barn door.
Following the Green Rabbit is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon at a discounted price for the month of December.
Next on our literary journey through the pages of my novels, we’re going to hop over to the Isle of Man, a small island in the Irish Sea, which lies between northern Great Britain and the north of Ireland, where we’re going to catch up with Pierre, our handsome leading man from You’ll Never Walk Alone, who’s treating Lucy to a little break away (although, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know he has another agenda).
I have fond memories of the Isle of Man, even though I only ever visited as part of my job as an insurance surveyor. I used to go there for three or four days at a time a couple times a year, but unlike Pierre and Lucy, who travel on the Isle of Man ferry, I used to fly over from Liverpool on a little Shorts 360 airplane.
Although I was working, I still managed to see quite a lot of the place between appointments. The island is probably best known for the notoriously hazardous annual TT motor cycle race. On one occasion I drove my hire car around the famous circuit, although at a considerably more modest pace than the TT competitors, of course. During the initial draft of the book, I’d been planning for Pierre to take part in the race, but the logistics became problematic. Maybe he’ll return to the island to do just that in a sequel to You’ll Never Walk Alone that my characters are still begging me to write.
I was also tempted to take Lucy and Pierre on a grand tour of the island, but it would have got in the way of the story, so I contented myself with a brief interlude in which they drive out to Peel Castle on the west coast of the island. It’s a partially restored Viking ruin, and a pretty, peaceful location where once I sat overlooking harbour to dictate a report. My typist (yes, it was that long ago) told me she wondered why she could hear seagulls in the background.
Lucy and Pierre stay in the fictional Royal Hotel, where Pierre ‘has a bit of business’ to attend to. It’s loosely based on the Palace Hotel and Casino, one of the places I stayed in during my visits to the island. It made a fine and fitting backdrop to the story, although I never went to the casino itself where much of the action in this part of the book is set. Nor did I visit the ‘back of house’ areas in that particular hotel. Trust me, it’s not always a good idea to stay, much less eat, in a place where you’ve inspected the kitchens. However, my knowledge of hotel security did come into play.
Excerpt from ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’
Pierre crept along the second floor corridor. He’d left Lucy sleeping. As far as she was concerned, they were just going to help Verushka get away from the abusive Russian. Pierre hadn’t mentioned the jewels again. He decided he was going to make sure he got his hands on them himself, and since he still had the passkey and d-lock, what could go wrong? Provided he was careful.
He counted off the room numbers until he reached 287. Even from outside the door he could hear the Russian snoring. Pierre took out the passkey and ran it through the slot next to the door handle. The indicator light changed from red to green and the lock clicked open. Pierre paused and listened again; satisfied, he opened the door gently and slipped into the room. He closed the door quietly. The room was shrouded in darkness. The Russian snored on. Pierre could also hear Verushka’s slow, quiet breathing; she was also asleep.
Pierre moved silently over to the wardrobe and took out the pen torch he’d borrowed from behind the bar downstairs. As he opened the door, the Russian spluttered and muttered something. Pierre froze and killed the torch beam. He heard Denisovich turn over. Minutes passed. He heard the Russian breathing heavily again.
All clear, Pierre thought. He switched the torch back on and fitted the electronic device into the lock of the safe. The little door swung open. Pierre reached in and drew out a thick, velvet covered jewel case. He eased back the little golden clasp and opened it. There was the necklace, with the matching earrings and a brooch; the complete set.
As Pierre stood up he felt the cold, hard barrel of a gun press against the back of his head. ‘Turn around slowly and give that to me,’ said Verushka softly.
You’ll Never Walk Alone is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon at a discounted price for the month of December.
Returning to our literary tour through the pages of my novels, let’s pop over to the romantic city of Paris, where we’re going to join our main character, Laura and her boyfriend, Greg from The Silver Locket. The city of Paris is rather special to me, being the first overseas place to which I travelled with my husband, when we were very young, back in 1985. In a similar way, Paris is special to Laura, being the first place Greg took her for a weekend away.
Specifically today we’re going to tag along with them on their visit to Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris and the most visited necropolis in the world. You may remember from the first stop on our tour that I share Laura’s fascination for old graveyards. You can’t get much more fascinating than Père Lachaise with its catalogue of famous decedents including Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein and many, many more, so naturally Laura would choose to visit the place during her weekend away with Greg.
It’s a fascinating place where you can wander for hours amongst some of the most incredible funerary monuments. I’ve been drawn to the cemetery during several subsequent visits to Paris, which was an easy hop from Liverpool on Easyjet by the late 1990s.
The narrow lanes and twisting paths are the perfect place for another eerie encounter with the mysterious woman in the brown coat, whom Laura first meets in the Rufford graveyard, although on this occasion, Laura’s mistaken and it’s someone else. Greg’s reaction to her erroneous confrontation and, a little later on, to the silver locket with its naively-drawn picture and odd little talisman inside, show us how dismissive he can be of Laura. We start to see that he’s on different trajectory to her, scorning simple pleasures, like picnics by the river, which Laura continues to enjoy (as do I, provided there’s a nice bench to sit on).
I have to say that I’m in rather good company with this particular choice of setting. Alexandre Dumas references the famous cemetery in his novel The Count of Monte Cristo as being ‘alone worthy of receiving the mortal remains of a Parisian family…’ and the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is buried in Père Lachaise. More recently, in the film Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the eponymous dark wizard convenes his followers at Père-Lachaise towards the end of the film.
Excerpt from ‘The Silver Locket’
Laura and Greg stood together poring over the plan of the famous Parisian cemetery, Père Lachaise.
“Okay,” said Greg, “we’ve seen Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, the Belgian poet who’s climbing out of his grave…”
“Yeah, Rodenbach, who else do you want to visit?” Greg looked around at the lines of gravestones and monuments stretching off in all directions. “We don’t want to spend all day here do we?”
“No, but can’t we just wander around for a bit? Oh, but we should see the wall where the communards were executed, that should appeal to you,” Laura laughed. “Round up the anarchists and shoot them.”
“Mmm, very amusing,” said Greg consulting the plan. “The Mur des Fédérés, as it’s actually called, is along here,” he said pointing to the map. “We can go there and then loop back along here towards where we came in.”
They wandered along in silence, Laura veering off the path to take a closer look at some of the more intriguing or quirky-looking tombs. A large ginger cat was happily curled up on the step of Rossini’s tomb. Laura stopped to stroke it. It purred loudly.
She looked up; Greg was already some distance away further down the path. Then out of the corner of her eye she saw a movement. At first she thought it was another cat, the cemetery was full of them, but then she saw a figure emerge from inside one of the tombs. It was a large woman wearing a brown coat. It was her, Laura was sure. And this time she’d followed her all the way to Paris. Laura moved stealthily towards the woman. She wasn’t going to get away from her a third time. Laura crept as quickly as she could after the woman, keeping out of sight. The woman was on one of the main pathways now, heading towards the gate. Laura broke into a trot. She was almost on her when she heard rapid footsteps catching up behind her. She ignored them as she drew level with the woman and caught her by the arm.
“Got you,” Laura cried triumphantly. “Now you can tell me who you are and…” Laura’s voice trailed off. It wasn’t her. “Oh, sorry. Pardon, madame,” she said, letting go of the woman’s arm. She continued her apology, explaining in her fluent French that she’d mistaken her for someone else. Laura stepped back and bowed her head. “Pardonnez-moi.”
“What on earth do you think you’re doing, Law?” It had been Greg behind her.
“It was a mistake,” Laura said to Greg, then turning to the woman: “Une erreur, Madame.”
The woman brushed her arm in an exaggerated fashion, snorted, and headed off towards the gate.
“Do you think I should go after her?” asked Laura.
“No, I don’t. Just leave it. But what in heaven’s name were you doing? You virtually assaulted that poor woman.”
“I know, I feel awful. But this woman in a brown coat keeps following me. First I met her in the churchyard in Rufford. But then she was in Preston, and then I saw her by the park in Liverpool and then at the train station there too.”
Greg rolled his eyes. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” said Greg. “There was a café near we came in, let’s go and have a drink and maybe you can explain what this is all about.”
Laura did her best to explain, but under Greg’s critical gaze, it did seem that her bumping into the mystery woman a couple of times was probably no more than coincidence. Laura took out the locket and handed it to him, telling him where she had found it and showing him how it opened.
“What’s this scruffy bit of paper?” he said, pulling out the little drawing. Laura was only just quick enough to stop it blowing off the table where Greg had dropped it in disgust. “And this stamp inside, it doesn’t look like a proper jeweller’s mark to me. Is it worth anything? At least you’ve not been tempted to wear such a naff little object.”
Laura snatched it back from him and carefully replaced Thomas’s drawing over the little talisman which still looked up at her imploringly. There was clearly no point in explaining anything further about it. As for the dreams, she decided she should keep those to herself. It was all very well trying to find out about the history of the house she’d inherited, but to try to get Greg to understand that she’d been trying to trace the existence of someone she had just dreamt about, however strangely and vividly, was really not a good idea.
The sun was high in the sky; it was past noon and people were leaving their offices for their customary long lunch breaks.
“Come on,” said Laura. “Let’s get a picnic from the boulangerie over the road there and take it down by the river.”
“Wouldn’t you prefer to go to a nice bistro somewhere?”
“Not if we’re eating tonight. Oh please, Greg, let’s have a picnic. It’s what we always used to do.”
“That’s because it was all we could afford. But okay, if you like. I’ll leave the choice up to you, as long as you promise not to attack any more old ladies.”
The Silver Locket (written under my pen name Holly Atkins) is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon at a discounted price for the month of December.
This is the novel I started to write during NaNoWriMo last year. I’d already discovered a few of the key characters early on that year in a handful of short stories I wrote, set in a fictional town located somewhere on the beautiful west coast of South Africa.
Some of you might remember Albertina, Auntie Rose and Auntie Grace, Jannie, Sam and the Professor from those stories; some of you also know that my characters have a habit of plucking at my sleeve, reminding me that they more of their stories need to be told.
And so now, it is with the greatest pleasure that I can tell you that Song of the Sea Goddess is ready to share with you via the ARC: simply click here to download your copy and get started.
Here’s the blurb:
Sam thinks his problems are over when finds his fishing bucket filled with gold coins. There’s a problem though. The gold burns the fingers of anyone who touches it. His unlikely find coincides with the appearance of a mythical sea creature on the headland overlooking the town and the resumption of quarrying up in the mountains that is poisoning the streams and contaminating the town’s water supply.
Determined to keep his coins hidden, Sam goes up-river to bury them. There he encounters a beguiling young woman called Shasa, who lives by one of the tainted springs and just happens to have a fish’s tail.
As the blasting continues, the discovery of a series of recently-made drawings in the cave under the headland reveals a terrifying prophesy that will result in the earth spilling apart. Fearing for Shasa’s safety, Sam sets out find her again, only to meet the danger head on, as nature takes its revenge for the damage being wrought by humankind.
Will Sam and Shasa survive?
Set in a fictional location on the West Coast of South Africa, this moving story blends the charm of small town life with the threat of ecological disaster at the hands of a powerful force beyond human understanding.
Come the New Year the ebook and paperback will be available to buy on Amazon and I’m already excited!
Now I must get back to writing the so far untitled sequel… be right with you, Albertina!
Today’s stop on our literary journey through my novels takes us to a specific part of Liverpool. From the pages of You’ll Never Walk Alone, we visit one of best-known and best-loved traditional hostelries in the city, The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, commonly known as ‘The Phil’.
Built at the beginning of the 20th century, the building is an architectural gem. The interior is ornately decorated using musical themes that relate to the concert hall across the road. Two of the smaller side rooms are appropriately named, ‘Brahms’ and ‘Liszt’ and, although I don’t mention them by name, it is in one of these rooms that Ruth and Connor settle themselves in the excerpt below. Also of note in this splendid location are the gentlemen’s urinals, which are made from rose-coloured marble (ladies are allowed to take a peek when it’s not busy, and yes, of course I’ve been for a look).
This grand public house is popular with folk from all walks of life, but especially ‘arty’ types like writers and musicians, and students. Close to the campus of the University of Liverpool, where I studied back in the early 1980s when the novel is set, it was always a popular stop on the way into town of an evening. Connor would be in his element here, and indeed in any bar!
Connor and Ruth arrive at ‘The Phil’ by way of St. Luke’s Gardens, where they first meet up. Better known as the ‘Bombed Out Church’, St. Luke’s another well-known Liverpool landmark, popular for assignations of various kinds. The church was badly bombed during the WWII and only the shell remains, but the gardens, even then, were nicely kept and were open to the public during the day.
One final note: there is an art supplies shop in Slater Street, called Jackson’s. One of those ‘proper’ old shops, which has been there since the late 1890s. Past customers include famous Liverpool artists, Augustus John and Stuart Sutcliffe. I had a friend who worked there. I suppose that Ruth might have been very, very loosely based on her. Don’t let the unprepossessing photo put you off. It’s changed a bit since the photo below was taken, although this is more how I remember it.
Excerpt from You’ll Never Walk Alone
Ruth checked that the back door was locked and bolted, snatched up her keys and handbag, and picked up a package from the counter. She fastened her coat and pulled the hood over her short blonde hair before stepping out into the early evening drizzle. She quickly double-locked the front door and padlocked the wrought iron gates over the shop front of Windsor’s Art Supplies, the family shop which her great, great-grandfather had opened in 1879.
She glanced up and down Slater Street, then crossed the road into the narrow street opposite. The heels of her shoes struck the pavement determinedly. A few minutes later she was hurrying across the busy road towards the gardens of the bombed-out church of St Luke’s. The cathedral clock further up the hill was just striking five o’clock as Ruth entered the church gardens. Her eyes followed the pathway as she searched for the man she was meeting. The gardens were all but deserted, the wooden benches set at intervals around the pathway empty apart from one.
As Ruth approached the man stood up and raised his hat to her. “Good evening to you,” he said. “Thank you for coming.” He smiled and held out his hand. “They call me ‘The Poet’,” he said, gazing intently into her eyes.
Ruth introduced herself and shook his hand firmly.
“Please join me on my solitary pew, Miss Windsor,” he continued, indicating the damp bench with a sweeping gesture. Ruth detected an Irish accent. She noticed his striking blue-green eyes which lit up his craggy face. For an older man, she found him really rather attractive.
Ruth tucked her coat under her as she sat down. The rain had stopped, but water continued to drip from the trees and bushes.
She was puzzled though. “The Poet? I was expecting someone else. The order was placed by…”
“My associate, Pierre Bezukhov.” Connor said triumphantly. “You do have the painting for me then?”
All along she’d thought it was strange that her client had wanted to meet her away from the shop, and now he’d sent someone else to pick up the painting. Still, a commission was a commission. Shrugging her shoulders, Ruth handed him the package.
Taking it from her he fingered the packaging: “Shall we take a little look?” It had started to rain again. Connor looked skyward. “But not here. Let’s get out of the weather.” Turning to Ruth he said: “Miss Windsor, would you care to accompany me to a nearby hostelry, to seal the deal with a little drink as it were..?”
Ruth hesitated. “Well…”
“Dear Miss Windsor, I would really like to have a look at it while you’re with me.” Connor looked at her intently.
Ruth stared back at him. “All right, fine.”
“Okay, let’s go before we get any wetter.”
They left the gardens and hurried up the road to The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, the grand Victorian pub known for its rich tiling, stained glass and chandeliers, and of course, its wide selection of alcoholic beverages.
There were only a handful of people standing around the bar area when they arrived. They selected an empty corner in one of the small side rooms and Connor went to fetch their drinks. Ruth took off her coat and smoothed down her skirt. She eyed the package which The Poet had left on the table between them.
Connor returned empty-handed. “So sorry Miss Windsor, I appear to have forgotten my wallet.”
Ruth fished in her handbag and retrieved a scrunched up five pound note from its depths. She held it out to him. “Please, do call me Ruth, especially if I’m buying.”
Connor took the note with a slight bow and hurried back to the bar. He returned with a pint of Guinness and a gin and tonic. He piled up the change on the table in front of her. She scooped up the notes and coins and dropped them into an inner recess of her bag.
Connor lifted his glass and took a generous mouthful. Putting the drink down, he picked up the painting, then having untied the wrapper carefully he peeked inside.
Ruth leant towards him over the table and whispered: “The Turner, as ordered.” She took a sip of her drink.
Connor looked up, his eyebrows raised over those striking blue-green eyes. “An original?”
Ruth frowned. “No, of course not. You don’t know?” she paused. Something was wrong. “This is exactly as the client requested,” she whispered across the table.
“Yes. Yes of course. Just picking it up for a friend don’t you know?” The Poet sounded doubtful. He re-tied the wrapper and took a large pull on his pint. Cradling the painting in his lap, he looked earnestly at Ruth: “He did pay for it, I trust?”
“Well,” said Ruth slowly, “he gave me a bank deposit slip for the payment. Otherwise I wouldn’t have completed the commission for him.”
“Sure he did. Of course.” Connor nodded thoughtfully. There was something fishy going on. A forgery? No, surely just a copy. Ruth didn’t strike him as someone who’d be mixed up in something underhand. If he did take the painting from her, and she seemed quite prepared to let him have it, what was the worst that could happen?
“Listen, Miss Windsor… Ruth… here’s the receipt I got from… er, Mr Bezukhov,” Connor held out the crumpled piece of paper. Is there something you need me to sign?
Ruth rummaged in her bag and pulled out a well-used receipt book and a pen. She leaved through the pages. “Here we are,” she said, placing the book in front of him and pointing. “Just sign here.”
Connor quickly scribbled an indecipherable squiggle and passed the book back to her. “Thank you Ruth, it’s been a pleasure meeting you.” He drained his glass and tucking the painting under his arm, stood up. “Maybe our paths may cross again.” He smiled, blue-green eyes twinkling, as he raised his hat to her.
The latest stop on our literary journey through my novels takes us to Daresbury, one of the numerous villages located in the rolling Cheshire plain, which was the inspiration for the village near Bluebell House, home to Bryony, Bethany and their tutor, Mr Eyre in Following the Green Rabbit.
Daresbury is not so physically close to Alderley Edge as the fictional village in the novel, but the overall impression of this pretty little village, with its narrow lanes and Victorian cottages, was the perfect backdrop for the action that was to play out in the story.
I first stumbled on this quaint little village (I’m hoping it still is) during a narrow boat holiday back in the 1980s. Searching for lunchtime refreshment, we set out from the canal, and struck out towards the nearest village, which actually turned out to be quite a tidy step! Even now, I remember the hedgerows that lined the narrow lanes, where we picked blackberries for a not-very-successful dessert that evening. We passed the church, and a little further along, we found the all-important ‘Ring’o’Bells’ public house.
Not at all relevant to my story, but of interest, is the fact that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was born at the vicarage in Daresbury. All Saint’s church has some wonderful stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
There’s a print of this lovely depiction hanging in my bathroom. Was it from this connection that I unconsciously introduced a strange green rabbit into the story? We don’t actually visit the interior of the church in the book. If we had, it might have sent Mr Eyre down a whole new rabbit hole. But I digress.
The village green is a key location in Following the Green Rabbit, but as far as I recall, there isn’t much of one in Daresbury, and I found myself remembering the one in the village in which I grew up, in Upper Poppleton, near York, way across the Pennines in Yorkshire. I have the impression that there were stocks on the corner of the Green at one time, but I think that’s just my imagination!
Excerpt from ‘Following the Green Rabbit’
The village was a pleasant fifteen minute walk from Bluebell Wood House. The narrow lane was lined with leafy hedgerows where insects buzzed. “We collected blackberries and elderberries for jam along here last year, Mr Eyre.” Bryony pointed out a row of tall bramble bushes. “Look Bethany, there are so many again, and they’ll be ripe soon.”
“And did you eat as many as you picked?” Mr Eyre said, laughing as he rummaged about in the bushes, examining the fruit. “I know I did as a boy.”
“Do they have blackberries in London?” asked Bethany.
“Well, not in the city itself, apart from in some of the parks. But I grew up in Kent. I only went to London later on.”
They walked a little further. “So tell me, ladies of the flowering vine and house of figs, what other useful plants can we find here in the hedgerows?” He rubbed his chin. “You know we really should’ve brought a flora.”
“Yes, you know, Miss Bryony, a book for identifying flowering plants. No doubt your Papa has such a volume in his collection?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure he has.”
Mr Eyre plucked a couple of likely samples from the hedge and tossed them into Bethany’s basket. He crouched before her, eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Maybe you could try drawing some of them?”
Bethany nodded happily.
“And I could label them,” added Bryony.
“Splendid idea,” Mr Eyre exclaimed, rising swiftly to his feet and waving his forefinger in the air. “Using the original Latin names, of course.” He spun around and pointed down the lane. “Now let us press on into the village.”
The lane broadened out at the crossroads at the edge of the village which boasted a line of neat brick-built houses arrayed around the village green. There were couple of stone water troughs for passing horses and, much to Mr Eyre’s delight, the old village stocks, which fortunately were padlocked shut, or otherwise, no doubt, he would have felt himself obliged to demonstrate.
The post office and general store was on the far side of the green. Mr Eyre lengthened his stride on seeing his objective and the girls almost had to run to keep up.
The little bell above the door tinkled as Mr Eyre opened it. Rosy-cheeked Mrs. Gilbert was standing behind the post office counter. She greeted the two girls warmly and asked when they were next expecting a letter from their parents. “So exciting dealing with post from so far away!” she exclaimed. Bryony answered politely and swiftly introduced Mr Eyre, who she noticed was twitching with impatience.
He rubbed his hands together. “Mrs. Gilbert, delighted to make your acquaintance. Tell me, have you a package for me? I am expecting one.”
“Likewise I’m sure, Mr Eyre, I’ll have a look in the back.” Mrs. Gilbert bustled through into the storeroom. A few moments later she returned with a parcel almost the size of a shoe box neatly-wrapped in brown paper. She looked at it inquisitively, peering up at Mr Eyre from behind her half-moon glasses.
“May I?” Mr Eyre put his hand out.
“A mystery parcel from my newest customer. What can it be?” she said curiously.
“Aha, you will have to wait and see, Mrs. G.” Mr Eyre replied, touching the side of his nose. He turned to the girls. “Miss Bryony, Miss Bethany, will you accompany me further?”
“Well I never did. Not a word of an answer,” said Mrs. Gilbert to herself as they left the shop.
Part 4 of our literary journey through my novels takes us far, far away from my former Liverpool home, the principal setting of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, to the gritty and exotic island of Jamaica.
Liverpool has had a small, but significant Caribbean community since at least the early part of the 19th century. Concentrated in south-central Liverpool, a vibrant social scene is associated with it, which includes a number of night clubs and dance halls. Some of these only just survived into the 1980s, following the infamous Toxteth riots of 1981, like the fictitious New Jamaica Club where Gina finds the first clue to the whereabouts of her missing father, Godrell Clark.
The occasional late night drink in my student days at one or two of those surviving social clubs is as close as I’ve ever got to Jamaica though. Of course, it would have been wonderful to visit the country in the ‘interests of research’, but that wasn’t going to happen.
Keen to hit a note of authenticity, I spent some time on Mr Google, but that didn’t really give me the feel for the country I was seeking.So what was I going to do to get under the skin of the place?
Well, it probably won’t surprise you to discover that I turned to the world of fiction. I’ve always enjoyed reading novels set in places I’ve visited, or wanted to visit, so that was the voyage of discovery I took. The books I found were these.
Augustownby Kei Miller is a superb book! Just what I was looking for. It gave me the real essence of the people and the place and is a wonderfully engaging, yet gritty, story. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is a much more challenging read, both in terms of the language and content. I regret to say I abandoned it about half way through. I could have persisted, and the reviews it’s received suggest that I should have. But life’s too short… and I had a book to write.
One final piece in my journey. How to get the sound and rhythm of my Jamaican characters’ speech? Well, it just so happened that an early series of the British-French TV series, ‘Death in Paradise’ was being aired on TV here. Policeman, Dwayne Myers, played by British actor, Danny John-Jules, provided the perfect voice for me to play back in my mind as I was writing.
Now, will you feel the sun on your face and the heat rising from the dusty ground?
Excerpt from ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’
The afternoon sun beat down on the dusty road outside C&J Motors where Dixon Jones was polishing the bonnet of a boxy blue Volvo. He hummed along to the song on the radio, which was playing inside the workshop. He wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his overalls and stood back to admire his handiwork. Alerted by the sound of an engine, he looked around to see a shiny red MG pull up in a cloud of dust. The door opened and the driver got out.
“Hey Dixon man, what you doin’ workin’ in all this heat?”
“Hey Godrell, what you doin’ drivin’ up like that, stirrin’ up all the dust?”
The two men greeted each other shaking hands, gripping thumbs and bumping fists three times before crossing their forearms across their chests. Dixon extended his arm around his friend’s shoulder. “So, let me get you a beer and you can tell me what brings you all the way out here from old Kingston Town.”
Godrell sat down on the bench in front of the workshop in the shade of the old mango tree while Dixon went through to the little back kitchen to fetch two bottles of Red Stripe. He handed one to Godrell before sitting down beside him. They chinked their bottles together.
“Seriously though,” said Godrell. “Why are you workin’ when you don’t have to? That’s what we employ the boys for.” He looked around, “Hey, where’s Jimmy and Crazy anyway?”
“Oh, they’re deliverin’ a car we just sold. Over on the other side of the island,” replied Dixon. “The ’64 Chevy. Nice price we got too.” He looked over at the Volvo. “I just like to do a bit of tinkerin’ and polishin’ now and then.” He laughed. “You is the real sleepin’ partner, but I like to keep my hand in here and there,” he said. He punched Godrell’s shoulder. “You just concentrate on makin’ a fortune wit’ those modern records in that shiny new studio of yours.”
“Sure, man. It’s the music what makes the world go round, eh?” Godrell did a little shimmy, making the gold chains around his neck rattle together.
“So, anyway, what do I owe the pleasure of your company, this fine afternoon?”
“Ah,” Godrell nodded, “just you look at this.” He pulled a folded up copy of the Kingston Gleaner out of his back pocket. He unfolded the newspaper and turned to the overseas news. “Look here,” he pointed to a small article and handed the paper to Dixon.
Dixon read the headline: ‘New Jamaica Club opens in Liverpool.’ There was a picture of the building with a man standing in the doorway at the top of the steps. The article went on: ‘The former Jamaica Club opens its doors again, with an exhibition of photographs and documents relating to the Caribbean community in Liverpool. People are invited to come and tell their stories and trace their past.”
Dixon turned to Godrell, “My, oh my, in our Liverpool home. I remember that building.” He smiled. “That whole scene…” his eyes glazed over for a moment. “And all those things we got up to when we were off the boat,” he grinned, hugging himself, his eyes dancing.
“Well, when you’re in a band…”
“…it’s only to be expected.” They both laughed.
“You remember the girls?”
Dixon looked down. “I remember that one girl,” he smiled. “But she had already fallen for somebody else.” He sighed, “Marie… that was her name. I suppose she married him and lived happily ever after.” He took a long pull from his beer and shook his head. “It was long ago, eh? Another time, another life.”
“But there’s more,” Godrell tapped the photograph. “See that man standing outside?” Dixon read the caption again and shrugged. Godrell continued. “It was Gracie Lloyd who showed me this. She’s the man’s sister. She came around this morning, hammering on the studio door and kicking up a ruckus, just to tell me that her brother here’s been trying to get hold of me.”
“That man’s Gracie’s brother is he?” Dixon peered at the photograph. “Devon Lloyd,” he shook his head. “I can’t say I remember him.”
“No, I don’t either. But I didn’t even know Gracie had an elder brother ‘til she showed me this.”
“And he’s a-wanting to get in touch wit’ you all the way from Liverpool, eh?” Dixon chuckled. “Maybe your past is catching up with you finally!”
“And what past would I have to worry about?” said Godrell, his eyes widening in an imitation of innocence.
Dixon raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
“Anyway, it got me thinking. About the band,” said Godrell. “I thought maybe we could get the boys together one last time; have a reunion of the famous Kingston Jazz Cats. What d’you say, man?”
Dixon thought for a moment. “Those were the days,” he muttered to himself. He looked up to the left, then up to the right, pursing his lips. Finally he nodded and said, “I think it’s a damn fine idea, Godrell Clarke. I think it’s a damn fine idea.”
You’ll Never Walk Alone: available in paperback, ebook and on KindleUnlimited. Also available from other online stores.