Location, Location, Location #11

Location No. 11 – The West Coast National Park, South Africa

This time, on our literary journey through the pages of my books, we’re back in South Africa to explore a little more of the beautiful west coast, where Song of the Sea Goddess is set. My imaginary little town isn’t a single place, but an amalgam of different locations, all quite close to each other, but brought together so as to satisfy the needs of the narrative.

Today’s visit is to a key site for the story. So pause, feel the African sun on your back, breathe in the salty sea air mixed with the sweet, spicy scent of the fynbos under your feet, and join me in the West Coast National Park, where the flora and fauna are protected and visitors now step lightly on the land.

I first visited the park on a day trip with my cousin and her husband, while they were visiting from the UK. It’s a lovely place for a walk by the lagoon, a little bird spotting and a pleasant lunch.

As a quick aside, the photo for the cover of my short story collection was taken at the restaurant.

These attractive yellow birds are weaver birds, whose nests fill the trees above the outdoor seating area. The males painstakingly weave their intricate nests out of grasses and the fussy females make their choice. If they don’t like them they destroy them and start again.

Better than a day trip is a couple of nights spent in the self-catering accommodation in the park. Some of the cottages are very isolated so that once the day visitors have left, it’s just you and nature and the night.

On one such visit, the sun had slipped beneath the horizon, not long after the photo above was taken, and we were sitting contemplating the dying embers of the braai (barbeque). Suddenly we were roused by a strange clicking sound. Lots of clicking. There was something around the other side of the cottage. Slowly we crept around the building.

What an amazing sight! One after another, a long ribbon of eland were walking past the cottage between us and the lagoon, no more than 20 yards away from where we were standing. There must have been about 50 of them, knees clicking as they walked, apparently so they can keep in touch with one another in the dark, or so I was once told by a park ranger.

Listen carefully. My increasingly arthritic knees can relate!

And now we come to the specific location and its role in the story. In the excerpt below we meet Jannie, one of our main characters, and catch an early glimpse of a mysterious, mythical figure who dives from the ‘looming headland’, which is a key part of the local landscape.

This is the ‘borrowed’ location, Kraal Bay, on the Langebaan Lagoon in the National Park. This is the place where Eve’s footprint was discovered: a set of fossilized footprints left in the sand some 117,000 years ago by one of the first people to walk on this shore.

My imaginary headland is possibly a little more whale-shaped, but that is the writer’s mind at work. Knowing the paths of the ancient people ran through this place, what else might be eventually be discovered beneath this domed hillside?

Kraal Bay – sanparks.co.za

Excerpt from ‘Song of the Sea Goddess

Jannie stretches out his legs and breathes in the warm sea air, which is laden with the smell of diesel and freshly caught fish. He smiles to himself. This is the life, he thinks, far away from all his cares and responsibilities. It’s been a stroke of luck that his brother, Robert landed a two month contract working up-country, and asked him if he would like to come and mind his little house on the coast while he was away. Robert, a long-time widower, lives alone now his family’s grown up and moved to Cape Town. He didn’t want to leave his house unoccupied. People are for the most part honest in the little town where he’s settled, but with more mouths to feed and fewer jobs, no one’s property’s safe for long.

Jannie has his own problems back home. Much as he loves his extended family, it was all becoming too much. What with his own grown up children, their children and assorted aunties, nephews and nieces constantly calling upon him for help, he’d really had enough. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t manage without him. It would be good for them, especially his four sons, to stand on their own two feet for a change.

He casts his eyes over the small harbour, looking out for Sam in his little fishing boat, Porcupine, which he’d helped him repair over a week or two when he first arrived. Jannie likes to keep busy, and was pleased to be able to use the skills he’d gained during his fifteen years at sea. But there’s no sign of Sam or little Porcupine. Perhaps they’ve gone further up the coast for a while, he thinks. Sam might be turning a better profit for his catch at one of the other busier harbours up the coast.

Remembering the past, Jannie chuckles to himself and closes his eyes. He’d run away to sea with his friend when they were just twelve years old. Carrying a little bag of warm clothes, he’d snuck out of his mother’s shack while she was sleeping and met his older sister up by the highway. She had a job in a bar next to Cape Town harbour, and she knew an officer on one of the deep sea fishing boats who would help them once they were on board. Jannie recalls standing in the almost pitch black on the quayside, his body swaying, thinking it was the ground under him which was moving, when in fact it was the looming steel hull of the ship in front of him. And oh, they had been so sick once the ship was underway…

Shouts and running feet jolt Jannie back to the present. The harbour master, jamming his peaked cap on his head, rushes past him towards the southern end of the harbour, where a small group of people have gathered. Jannie stands up and shakes himself, then hurries after the harbour master to join the gathering crowd, jumping up onto the harbour wall to get a better view of what’s caught their interest.

A tall, slender woman in long skirts is standing on the edge of the headland across the estuary. Her arms are held out in a welcoming gesture as dozens of whales break the surface of the waves before her. She lifts her head skywards, spreading her arms out widely, in a pose that reminds Jannie of the statue he’d so admired, long ago in Rio de Janeiro.

The woman opens her mouth and a loud, ululating song resonates across the bay. Suddenly the whales take to the air; wave upon wave of them. Jannie blinks and shakes his head. What’s going on? The woman’s song grows louder. The whales are flying! Jannie pinches himself.

The sky darkens, filled with the huge beasts. Then the song stops.

A close up of the woman’s face appears before Jannie’s eyes. She smiles revealing a row of pointed teeth. A selkie! He’d heard talk of these when he’d been sailing in northern waters. Jannie feels the harbour wall ripple beneath his feet.

Her face disappears. Up on the headland he watches her dive into the ocean. Her silver seal tail flaps once above the waves, and then she’s gone.

Jannie looks around. He’s alone on the harbour wall. A man passes close by him, he glances up and smiles, tipping his broad-brimmed hat in Jannie’s direction, while behind him, people are going about their business as usual. Jannie sits down on the wall and rubs his eyes. He looks up, the headland is deserted. Far out in the ocean he sees a solitary whale breaching.

Jannie returns to the white plastic chair that he’s claimed for himself and sits down. He rests his head in his hands, his thick brown-black dreadlocks spilling over his shoulders. It’s been more than ten years since he gave up the booze. So what kind of strange vision has he just had?

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Location, Location, Location #9

Speke Hall, Liverpool

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 – tea-rooms and visitors’ centre

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.

Speke Hall, The Great Hall

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.

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Image credits: Rodhullandemu, wikiwand, countrylife.co.uk

Location, Location, Location #8

Location No.8 – The Isle of Man

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.

the rest of the world

Image credits:
Isle of Man Tourism Board, Isle of Man Newspapers (David Kneale); jetphotos.com (Fraser McLachlan); Trip Advisor; Best Western Hotels

Location, Location, Location #6

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.”

“The Phil?”

“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.

You’ll Never Walk Alone is available in paperback and ebook

Image credits: Rodhullandemu, Bryan Ledgard, theguideliverpool.com and Vici MacDonald

Location, Location, Location #5

Location No. 5 – Daresbury, Cheshire

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.

Lewis Carroll inspired window in All Saint’s Church, Daresbury

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!

The Village Green in Upper Poppleton

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.”

“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.

Following the Green Rabbit is available in paperback and ebook.

Image Credits: GoogleMaps, haltonheritage.co.uk

Location, Location, Location #4

The Coat of Arms of Jamaica
The Coat of Arms of Jamaica

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.

Augustown by 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.

Image credits: Wikipedia, Goodreads

Location, Location, Location #3

Location No 3 – Preston, Lancashire

Preston, in the north west of England, is not the loveliest of towns, although it has some hidden gems. Too much 20th century development has trampled over the heart of the place, which dates back to Roman times. Preston came to prominence as far back as the 12th century, but the city’s history is not why this location is important to our literary journey today.

Once again, we’re delving into some of the background to The Silver Locket.

I was working in Lancashire County Council’s offices in Preston when I started writing the novel, and working in that public sector environment somehow led me to Laura’s occupation: a translator for the EU in Brussels (remember we’re back in 1989). It was my daily commute there from Liverpool through Rufford that really kick-started the novel. Driving fifty miles each way gives a writer lots of thinking time, in between listening to Radio 4, and I wrote many scenes in my head whilst on the road. Naturally, I couldn’t resist a little nod to the city in which I was working.

My desk at County Hall overlooked the Lancashire Records Office, which Laura visits to find out more about the family who lived in the house she’d inherited. It’s a strange building, elevated on stilts. I never did find out why. Nor did I actually visit the place. My knowledge of its operation came from a friend of mine, who was training as an archivist at the time. That’s Jo.

Real people, or sometimes just their names, do occasionally find themselves recreated fictionally in my books. The surname of the Reverend who married Cathy’s parents was borrowed from a colleague. He was rather pleased when I told him.

But back to our setting and the jeweller’s shop that Laura visits. Conveniently, there is (or at least was) a tiny jeweller’s shop, almost exactly as described in the book. Rather dark and mysterious, it had just the kind of owner who’d have the right connections to point Laura in the right direction to solve the mystery of her locket. More about where that takes her another time.

You’ll also notice I make references to the weather. Preston must be the wettest and windiest place I’ve ever encountered!

Excerpt from ‘The Silver Locket’

Twenty minutes later, the train pulled in at Preston. The station was larger and grander than Laura expected, with its curved wrought ironwork and glass roof supported on ornate columns which harked back the Victorian age of steam. From what Laura could see, Preston itself was rather less impressive than its railway station, although she was pleased to see a large Debenhams store on the corner. She might call in on the way back. Now she’d decided to stay on at the house for a while, she could do with a more extensive wardrobe than the suitcase-full she had brought.

Laura followed the directions given to her by the archivist she had spoken to at the Records Office on the phone the previous day. As she passed the solid square building of the county council offices, Laura imagined the staff inside scratching away at piles of bureaucracy, much like their counterparts in Brussels.

The Records Office was as described: an oblong building on stilts. Maybe the building was so strangely elevated to protect the records from flood, although despite the volume of the recent rain, it seemed unlikely that flood waters would ever reach such a height.

The archivist, Jo, who she’d spoken to on the phone, was an attractive young woman with long blonde hair. She was a great help, setting her up with the microfiche records of baptisms and burials from St. Mary’s church. Laura scanned through the records. It didn’t take her long to get used to navigating through the closely written text. Laura knew that the date of Cathy’s baptism had to before 1912. If Peter had been 22 when he’d died, as it said on the gravestone, he would have been born in 1890, just over a hundred years ago. Cathy was obviously his younger sister, so she should start looking at the entries after 1890.

And there it was: Catherine Emily Martland, baptised 31st March 1897. Her parents’ names, Thomas Edgar and Sarah Elizabeth, of Rufford, Lancashire. The ceremony performed by the Reverend Josiah Blackburn.

At last, here was the proof that Cathy had existed. This had to be the Cathy who experiences she had lived out in the two dreams, she’d had. Dreams that had been so vivid, it had been as if she was Cathy herself. Laura had never had dreams like these before. She wasn’t exactly disturbed by them, but it was strange. Maybe it was as Helen had said. She was just so immersed in the house that she was bound to dream about it. But still, why wasn’t she dreaming about her aunt? Why were the dreams taking her back to an earlier period in the house’s history?

Laura exchanged the baptisms sheet for the burials one. There was no record of the burials of Thomas or Peter. The woman in the churchyard had said that they never found Thomas’s body. Maybe Peter’s body had been lost too. Sarah’s burial was dated 18th July 1916.  She and Cathy had already moved out of the house, of course, as Lucy’s husband had purchased it in 1913. Laura wondered where they had gone. She continued to scan the records, but she could find no entry for Catherine. Her eyes were getting tired, and anyway she had found out what she really wanted to know. One final scan and her eyes found the name James Clayton, Lucy’s husband. He had died in 1925. Poor Lucy, though maybe if he had been so badly shell-shocked, it had been something of a relief.

Laura returned the microfiche sheets to their box and took them back to the counter.

“Any luck?” asked Jo.

“Yes, thanks,” Laura replied. “I found what I was looking for.”

“Well, if you need anything else, you know where we are.”

Laura headed back towards the station, passing the entrance and heading for the ugly Fishergate Centre which housed Debenhams. A quick coffee and a slice of cake fortified her for some proper retail therapy. Although not a particularly keen clothes shopper, Laura was happy enough browsing the displays and picking out some practical additions to her currently sparse wardrobe. She also splashed out on a duvet and a pretty cover, since she was missing the comfort and ease of a quilt, being no longer accustomed to the sheets and blankets she was using now.

As she left the Centre she noticed a small jeweller’s shop on the opposite corner. She still had the locket fastened around her neck and it would be the ideal opportunity to have it examined. The bell on the door rang loudly as she entered.

“Be right with you,” called a voice from the back room of the shop. Presently, a man emerged.

“Could you take a look at this for me?” Laura asked unfastening the ribbon and handing him the little necklace. “I think it should open, but I’m afraid of breaking it.”

He turned the locket over in his hand. “I’m a bit busy just now, but I can certainly look at it tomorrow if you want to leave it with me.”

Laura hesitated. Somehow she didn’t want to part with the locket. But that was stupid. She could easily come back on the train tomorrow. She nodded and took his card.

Fortunately the train wasn’t crowded and Laura was able to secure sufficient space to accommodate her purchases. As the train pulled into Rufford station, she recognised the woman in the brown coat again. She had just left the platform and was heading over the level crossing. Laura was keen to speak to her. She hurried off the train, dragging her carrier bags with her. The woman turned into the churchyard. Laura tried to quicken her pace, but the wind which had replaced the rain, caught the unwieldy bags and slowed her down. By the time she reached the church the woman had vanished. Maybe she had gone into the church? Laura went to look, but the door was locked.

The Silver Locket: available as a paperback, ebook and on KindleUnlimited

Image credit: visitpreston.com

Location, Location, Location #2

Location No. 2 – Alderley Edge, Cheshire

In the second of my series discussing the settings for my novels, come with me to Alderley Edge, in Cheshire, NW England.

“Alderley Edge is an abrupt and elevated ridge, formerly the site of a beacon, which bears the appearance of having been detached by some great convulsion of nature. … The sides are varied with cultivated land, wood and rock; and the entire mass presents a striking object to all the surrounding district over which it commands a most extensive prospect.” The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester, George Ormerod (1819).

This looming escarpment provides the backdrop to my third novel, ‘Following the Green Rabbit’, which I began writing during NaNoWriMo in 2018. By this time, I’d been living in South Africa for eight years, so I was drawing heavily on my carefully stored memories of the English countryside for the setting.

Alderley Edge still towers over a patchwork of fields and farmland and small villages. It has an ancient, timeless quality. I drove past it numerous times when making the journey home from North Wales to Liverpool, and I can still see it clearly in my mind’s eye: a massive stark shape hunched over the surrounding landscape, dark against the glowing afternoon sky. This, and the open countryside beyond, the wide Cheshire Plain, peppered with old villages that still hold the essence of the past, was the perfect setting for the novel.

This location also provided the setting for two of my favourite childhood novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, written by British novelist, Alan Garner. Garner lived locally and the timeless quality of the place and the legends associated with it, inspired him too. It’s a place where anything might happen at any time in history.

The towering escarpment, presiding as it does over a flat, low-lying landscape, is a metaphor for the wicked Lord of the Manor in the novel, whose presence looms over the lives of the people who live in the village where my two plucky heroines find themselves.

Excerpt from ‘Following the Green Rabbit’

They stood up, wondering where to run. The sound of the hooves was getting louder. A horse snorted and they heard a man cry out.

“Quick. Behind the house.” Bryony grabbed her sister’s hand and they ran around the back of the damaged building.

Seconds later the clearing was full of stomping horses. The girls cowered under the window at the back of the house.

A man shouted. “Where did he go?” Another voice: “Search the buildings.”

Bethany gasped. Bryony held her tight. Over her shoulder she saw something moving in the bushes. A boy’s head appeared. His eyes were wide-open and startled-looking. He stared straight at Bryony, who froze, clinging on to her sister. Bryony was aware of more shouting at the front of the house. The men were arguing. She focused on the boy’s face. It was scratched and dirty, his hair was sticking out wildly from under his cap and his shirt was torn. He looked to left and right, then beckoned to her, nodding and mouthing words to her.

Bethany twisted around to see what Bryony was looking at. She gasped in surprise. The boy beckoned with greater urgency. At the front of the building the shouting stopped.

Then suddenly, they heard the order. “Find him! Spread out! He’s got to be here somewhere.” The voice was harsh and the accent strange to Bryony’s ears. She looked at Bethany and nodded. They scrabbled into the bushes and followed the boy as he disappeared deep into the undergrowth.

He moved rapidly and the girls struggled to keep up. But they did. The men’s shouts as they rode around the glade on their heavy-hoofed horses spurred them on. Low branches tugged at their hair and their clothes, while brambles scratched their bare legs. They stumbled over roots and crawled over logs for what seemed like ages. The boy glanced back a couple of times to check on their progress, but he didn’t slacken the pace. Finally they came to a steep bank where he stopped.

“Get ourselves over that,” he nodded at the bank, “they’ll not follow. A bit further on there’s a place where we can stop and talk.”

The girls weren’t used to climbing but he showed them how to use the tree roots as hand and foot holds and they soon managed to clamber up. A series of rocky outcrops on the other side made it easy enough for the girls to scramble down.

“Follow me,” the boy said. The girls obeyed, picking their way along the rock-strewn path. Both were grateful to still be wearing their sturdy outdoor shoes from their morning walk into the village. A little further along he stopped again and led them down another dip in the land to a wide flat slab of stone at the entrance to a cave.

The boy flopped down on the ground just inside the cave. The girls followed his example, leaning back against the smooth cave walls. “That was a close call,” he said. “I thought me goose was well and truly cooked.”

This week the ebook is on special offer at 99c (USA, CAN, AUS), 99p (UK), R18.99 (RSA), and other local equivalents.

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Image credit: Brian Abbott

Location, Location, Location #1

Location No. 1 – St Mary’s Church, Rufford

Come on a journey with me…

The setting is very important to a novel: the sense of place, time and social environment contextualizes the story so that the reader can visualize and experience it.

I thought it might be fun over the coming weeks for us to go and visit some of the places where my novels have been set. Each time I’ll give you a little of the background as why these locations were important to my story and important to me, and you can read how they fit into the narrative of the book.

We’ll begin in Rufford, a little village in West Lancashire, England, where my debut novel, The Silver Locket, is mainly set.

My route to work each day took me through this pretty little place with its traditional houses, surrounded by flat, fertile farmland. In the evening, I’d see a hawk hovering over a field, then swooping down to catch its prey, and through the early morning mist, a bright barn owl would fly low across the road, almost touching the windscreen.

Near the centre of the village, there is a big, brick-built Victorian house, set back from the road, in large grounds. I was particularly drawn to the huge old oak tree in the garden. It grew in my imagination and over time, the house and garden became the perfect location for my heroine, Laura, to begin her ‘journey’ through the pages of my story.

Early on in the book, Laura visits St. Mary’s, the local church in Rufford. Here, in the churchyard, we learn some important clues about the past inhabitants of the house that Laura has recently inherited, and we meet a new character, about whom there is a definite air of mystery.

St. Mary’s Church, Rufford, is a real place, although its resemblance to the church and churchyard in my story is no more than a passing one. However, I do share Laura’s passion for visiting old graveyards…

Excerpt from ‘The Silver Locket’

Laura was keen to explore some more of the village. She walked down the twisting side road towards St Mary’s Church. Laura had always loved old graveyards; there was something about the hint of past lives engraved on old lichen-covered gravestones which she found curiously satisfying. As Laura worked her way through the headstones reading names and dates it occurred to her that the inhabitants of Rufford had been a particularly hardy bunch, all living to a ripe old age over the last couple of centuries.

One grave stood out to contradict this. It belonged to the Martland family. She leant forward and read the inscription: ‘In memoriam: Peter, beloved son of Thomas and Sarah, aged 22 years, died in a storm off the New Hampshire coast, 28th April 1912.

Then beneath that: ‘Captain Thomas Edgar Martland, aged 49 years, lost with his ship “Ariadne” and all her crew, 14th April 1913.’ There was a poem:

‘Safely moored amongst the peaceful dead
And from his labours rests his weary head,
With Neptune’s waves many times he’s fought,
Yet the blow was struck when least was thought.’

and underneath that…

‘Rest in peace: Sarah, loving wife and mother, died of a broken heart, 15th July 1916, aged 45 years.”

“So sad,” someone said softly behind her.

Laura started. She hadn’t heard anyone approach. She turned to see a big, powerful-looking woman with thick greying hair drawn up into a bun. She wore a brown coat and sturdy-looking shoes.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” She spoke with a trace of an Irish lilt in her voice. “So sad, both Peter and the Captain gone and Peter’s first time at sea too.”

“They died within almost a year of each other,” said Laura, looking at the dates.

“That’s right. Peter was on his way back from his first trip to New York and the Captain, he was lost at almost the same time the following year. His poor body was never found. Mrs Martland was never the same again, losing them both… and then…” her voice trailed off. The woman shook her head, gazing beyond the gravestone into the distance. “Sad, so sad…”

“You remember them?” But how could she, thought Laura. The captain and his son had perished 75 years ago. “No, surely it was too long ago?”

The woman smiled back her, her expression far away.

“Do you live round here?” asked Laura. “I’ve just moved into my aunt’s old house in the village.”

“So you have,” said the woman in agreement.

Laura looked at her, wondering how she knew. News travelled fast in a small place like this she supposed. Memories too, would be in the psyche of the village.

“It was my home once.” the woman replied. She reached inside her coat and consulted a small silver fob watch which was pinned to her dress.  “I must go now.” She turned abruptly and walked away, her upright figure disappearing behind the west wall of the church.

The Silver Locket: available as a paperback, ebook and on KindleUnlimited