Little Inspirations: chasing rabbits

Would you follow this rather curious rabbit?

I’m still not entirely sure how this particular creature hopped into my consciousness to become the eponymous rabbit in my historical fantasy novel, Following the Green Rabbit, but it is he, or at least one of his cousins, that leads my two young heroines, Bethany and Bryony, and their tutor, Mr Eyre, through a portal into the past. Somehow he seemed to fit the bill, since I needed an unusual animal to appear in order to pique Bethany’s youthful curiosity and engage the interest of Mr Eyre’s enquiring mind.

Here’s where the two sisters come across the rabbit for the first time:

They had been silent for a little while, when suddenly they heard something rustling in the bushes by the fence behind them. They looked round to see an enormous rabbit emerge, nose twitching. His fur was grey-brown with a slight tinge of green. He nibbled on a piece of long grass, and then hopped past them. He was so close that Bryony could have stretched out and touched him. He stopped by the first tree and sat up on his hind legs. Then he turned and looked directly at them.

“That’s the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen. Look at his fur.” Bryony whispered.

The rabbit’s ears twitched. “Do you think he wants us to follow him?” Bethany whispered back.

Bryony laughed. “You’re not Alice.” It was only last year that Bryony had read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to her.

“But look, Briney.” The rabbit had raised a paw in their direction. “I’ll just go a bit nearer.” She stood up slowly so as not to alarm the creature, then took a few steps towards him.

The rabbit hopped off as far as the next stand of apple trees. He stopped and turned, looking up at Bethany with his dark brown eyes. His left ear bent quizzically. She looked back at Bryony. “I’m going to follow him.”

(Of course, I couldn’t resist tossing in the Alice in Wonderland reference as the prelude to what was about to happen!)

But back to the actual green rabbit…

I took the two photos of the rapidly retreating rabbit at the top of the page while travelling on a tourist bus through part of the Atacama Desert in Chile on a trip to the El Tatio Geyser fields, some 14,000 feet above sea level, where the air is very thin and very cold.

Here are two more of my holiday snaps from that trip: one El Tatio geyser and two vicuñas in the Atacama Desert.

Since we would be travelling high, high up into the mountains over the 50 mile journey to reach the geysers from our base in San Pedro de Atacama, at breakfast early that morning I’d taken the precaution of consuming several cups of coca leaf tea as a protection against altitude sickness. On the way back from the geysers, when I saw this huge, green-tinged ‘rabbit’, I wondered if I’d actually consumed a little too much of the coca tea, such a curious creature it seemed to be. Actually, although coca leaves are the base for cocaine production, the amount of the coca alkaloid in raw coca leaves is minimal. Still, a green rabbit it a curious sight, even if you’re only suffering a little light-headedness from descending from the breathless heights of a volcano ring.

In fact, it’s not a rabbit at all. Let me allow Mr Eyre to explain:

Bryony came upon Mr Eyre in the library. He was sitting at the large reading desk which had been placed in the window overlooking the small garden. He was slowly leafing through her papa’s ‘Illustrated book of World Animals’.

He looked up as she approached. “I came across this when I was unpacking your father’s books. I thought I’d see if that green rabbit fellow of ours was listed in here. I’m pretty sure it’s not native to the British Isles.”

Bryony sat at the desk opposite him, watching him turn the pages. “Ah, what’s this?” He turned the page towards her. It was a picture of a large, green-tinged rabbit looking animal. The inscription below read: ‘Viscacha, a rodent in the Chinchilla family found in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru’.

“It certainly looks like him, but what would he have been doing in Bluebell Woods?”

“I don’t know Bryony. Maybe there’s a doorway to other parts of the world too?”

Maybe Mr Eyre is pointing us to another adventure? I’m sure he’d jump at the opportunity!

In the meantime, I’ve attracted my own little following of rabbits:

You can do some ‘green rabbit’ watching for yourself. The accompanying music is rather splendid too!

Following the Green Rabbit is available on Kindle and in paperback: mybook.to/GreenRabbit

Little Inspirations: what’s in a name?

Lovely, isn’t it? This sampler, inherited from my husband’s side of the family, is by far the oldest piece we have in our house. We don’t know much about the family members mentioned, only that they were part of the Dodding family who were prosperous merchants living in the Lake District, in the north-west of England. The family made a fortune and built a fancy house then a risky investment in a coal mine in Birmingham, which turned out to have no mineable coal, led them to lose most of their money. The fancy house had to be sold, but that’s about all I know of their story. One thing I do know is that ‘our’ Elizabeth wasn’t related to the much more famous Elizabeth Gaskell, English novelist, biographer and short story writer, although that would have been so cool – a famous writer in the family!

But that’s not the reason I’m sharing this particular family heirloom with you. It’s because it is a ‘little inspiration’.

I was pondering on what to post today, wandering about the house (as I do), when I found myself contemplating the sampler. As I stood before the sampler my thoughts drifted to a recent post by Jean Lee on ‘How do you name your characters.’ My response to this question, about which she expands so interestingly, was this: ‘Naming characters is like naming cats… I have to wait for them to whisper them to me.’

Then I remembered that it was while I was gazing at the sampler that William, from Following the Green Rabbit, whispered his name to me. The date is about right for the ‘olden times’ part of the story, and it’s a nice ‘solid’ name for his character. I’d already named his wife, Ellen, for my maternal grandmother. The name just seemed right, and it was she who inspired me to improve my cookery skills. Grandma Atkins gave me her recipe for Lancashire Hotpot which in turn became my first published piece anywhere!

Grandma Atkins’s Lancashire Hotpot recipe, published in the Sunday Times!

And the ‘little inspiration’ for Ellen showing Bethany how to card wool in the excerpt below? Well, that came from my former life in the 17th century.

So now, what better time to introduce you to William, as my young heroine Bethany first finds herself back in the ‘olden times’.

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Excerpt from Following the Green Rabbit

“There was this man. He was dressed oddly, in sort of sacking stuff, but he had a nice, friendly face and I wasn’t afraid. He reminded me of Papa in a way, you know how his eyes pucker up at the edges when he smiles?” Bethany fell silent.

Bryony looked out across the garden; she blinked quickly then turned back to her sister. “A man, you say, in the woods? What did you do?” She glanced towards the kitchen door and over to Tom’s work shed, but there was no sign of either of their benevolent and hugely protective guardians.

“Well, he held out his hand to me, and I took it. He said something, but I didn’t quite understand him. He had a funny way of talking.”

Bryony’s eyes widened. “You took his hand? Beth…”

“I know I shouldn’t’ve done, but…” Bethany closed her eyes and shook her hands in front of her, like she did when she knew she’d done something wrong.

Bryony stretched out and grabbed her hands. “It’s all right; gently now. Take a deep breath and tell me.”

Bethany breathed in and out a few times.

“That’s better. Pray continue,” said Bryony, imitating the voice of the frightful Miss C.

Bethany looked up. “He told me his name was William and he lived with his wife nearby. We walked a little way and we came to his house. It was built out of stones and had a sort of straw roof, like one of the ones from the olden days in our big history book, except it seemed quite new. There was another little building too, like Tom’s workshop, and there were chickens running about outside.”

“His wife was called Ellen and she was sitting on a little bench outside the house. She had a big mound of white fluffy stuff next to her. She said it was from one of their sheep and she showed me how she was straightening it out with two big brushes.” Bethany frowned, putting her head on one side. “What did she call it?” She looked up at the sky. “Carding, that’s it. It was called carding. She showed me how to do it. Then we went into the house and she gave me some milk and biscuits.”

“Then Ellen said it was getting late. She and William looked at each other, you know, that funny kind of look which adults give each other, when we’re not supposed to understand something.” Bethany rolled her eyes. “Then William said that he’d walk me back to the village, so I explained that we didn’t live in the village. And they gave each other that look again. So I told them where we lived, but they didn’t know our house. They said there was no big house over the other side of the wood; just more trees.”

Bryony frowned. ‘How could they not know Bluebell Wood House?”

Bethany shrugged. “Perhaps I didn’t explain it very well. You know I get muddled up with directions. Anyway, they asked me to stay where I was and they went outside for a little while. When they came back they looked happy again. William said he’d take me back to the part of the woods where he first saw me and I’d be sure to find my way home. So that’s what we did.”

“I hope you thanked Ellen.”

“Yes,” Bethany rolled her eyes again. “You sound just like Hodge.”

“Who’s taking my name in vain?”

The two girls looked round. Hodge was carrying a basket of washing to hang out on the line.

“Oh, nothing. We were just saying we should thank you for our lunch,” said Bryony quickly.

“Well, you’re very welcome and you can show me your gratitude by clearing the table there.” She balanced the washing basket on her hip and picked the little carved robin up from the table. “That’s a pretty little thing, so it is. Where did you get it?”

‘I found it in the w… orchard,” stammered Bethany.

‘Hmm,” Hodge pursed her lips and put it down. She shifted the heavy basket in front of her. “Just mind you carry those lunch things in carefully,” she said turning away and continuing down the garden.

They started to clear the table. When Hodge was out of earshot Bethany picked up the robin and turned to her sister. “When William took me back to the woods he gave this to me and said it was a present to remember him and Ellen by. I took it from him and looked at it, but then when I looked up he’d gone. I didn’t even get the chance to thank him.” She stroked the little carving. “The funny thing is that when he gave it to me it looked like new. The colours were all bright and shiny. Now it looks as if it’s really old.”

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FOLLOWING THE GREEN RABBIT
~ a fantastical adventure

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Location, Location, Location #24

Location No 24 – From Somerset West to the West Coast of South Africa

Welcome to the latest stop on our literary tour through the pages of my novels. This week we’ll taking a pleasant drive from my home town to the little fictional town on the West Coast of South Africa to meet the characters from Song of the Sea Goddess who were so much fun to write about. The ladies are loosely based on some of the people whom I met when I arrived in Somerset West, not so long ago as the postcard above might suggest, I hasten to add.

The reason I’m showing you the postcard is that it gives you an idea of the style of house in which my two little aunties live, although their cottage stands alone on a dusty road just a stone-throw from the sea. Several similar ‘Cape Dutch’ style houses still remain in Somerset West, the best examples being in Church Street, which has an interesting history and which is a place that became an important part of my life when I arrived here.

Auntie Grace and Auntie Rose provide a comedic element to the novel, and the group of ladies their characters are based upon had the same wry outlook on life.

We were all part of a small volunteer group which sought to provide support to clients of the public clinic who were being treated for HIV, TB and other chronic conditions. It sounds a bit grim, but we did in fact have a lot of fun, as we engaged in various uplifting activities including sewing, knitting and beadwork, all of which was accompanied by singing and chatting over cups of tea and coffee, and the plates of sandwiches which were my contribution.

Somerset West Clinic, Church Street

Most of my fellow volunteers lived in Church Street in houses which were built on a plot of land originally owned by Lady Phillips, wife of Cape Governor, Lord Charles Phillips around the turn of the 20th century. A Methodist church and a school were also established here. My involvement in the support group was as a result of a connection to that school via an international art competition and exchange programme with my husband’s school in the UK back in 2008. It was through the friends we made at Somerset West Primary School that led to us moving Somerset West, two years later.

During our two mornings a week in our room at the back of the clinic, our conversations tended to centre on matters like ‘soapies’ (soap operas), clothes, kids and cooking. Sharing recipes and talking about food was what really cemented my connection with members of the group and this is how I came upon some of ‘Auntie Rose’s recipes‘ and my character’s cooking became part of her story.

And now to the story. The following excerpt is taken from an early part of the book where Albertina, new to the little West Coast town, first comes across the aunties.

Excerpt from Song of the Sea Goddess

A commotion at the front of the little house catches Albertina’s attention. Two little old aunties are marching up and down their stoep, noisily pulling the chairs from under the table, bending over and searching the floor. They both straighten up so much as they can; one holds up her hands in the air, the other plants her hands on her broad hips and shakes her head.

She walks over and stands looking at them, her head on one side and a smile on her bright red lips.

‘Come,’ Auntie Rose beckons her onto the stoep. ‘She can help us look, can’t she, Auntie Grace?’

Auntie Grace nods and hurries over to open the little gate for Albertina. She takes hold of Albertina’s sleeve. ‘Come,’ she tugs at the sleeve, propelling Albertina towards the table. ‘Put your bag down here and help us look.’

‘She doesn’t know what we’re looking for,’ says Auntie Rose.

‘I’m coming to that.’

Auntie Rose rolls her eyes and squints up at Albertina. ‘She’s lost her glasses,’ she points to her sister, ‘and I’ve lost my teeth,’ she explains gurning at Albertina. ‘My false teeth,’ she adds, in case Albertina misunderstands.

Albertina places her bag on the table and looks from one little auntie to the other. Immediately she notices the pair of glasses perched on Grace’s head. She points to her own head. Auntie Grace reaches up with one hand, pulls her glasses off her tightly cropped grey hair and holds them out to her sister, her eyebrows raised.

It’s Auntie Rose’s turn to put her hands on her hips. ‘I wasn’t looking there,’ she said indignantly. ‘You said they must have fallen on the floor, and anyway,’ she continued, ‘that’s where I was looking for my teeth.’ Albertina bends down to look under the table. As she does so, she notices a crescent-shaped bulge halfway down Auntie Rose’s rather tightly stretched pants’ leg. She stands up and points at the bulge. Auntie Rose looks down. Her hand goes to her thigh feeling the trapped object. She starts to giggle. She sits on the nearest chair and eases the object down past her knee. Still giggling she scoops the object up as it drops out of her pants’ leg and brandishes a set of teeth aloft. Both aunties burst into peals of laughter. Such is their merriment that Albertina joins in too, her eyes darting about the stoep.

As the laughter dies down, Albertina seizes the brush which is leaning by the wall and starts to sweep the stoep. Albertina is a demon sweeper. The aunties watch as she whisks up the dust and crumbs and bits of fabric and thread which have accumulated under the table. She makes a neat pile and looks around. She grabs the little shovel that stands in the corner and deftly sweeps the pile onto it. She spies the dirt bin the other side of the wall and swiftly deposits the rubbish inside, before replacing the brush and shovel. She goes to pick up her bag, but Auntie Grace puts her hand on hers and points towards a chair. ‘Sit a moment.’

The sisters look at each other and something unspoken passes between them.

‘We could do with some help,’ says Auntie Grace. ‘We can’t pay a lot mind. There’s not so much to do but, you know, some of the heavier work…’

A smile spreads across Albertina’s face.

‘Where do you stay?’ asks Auntie Rose.

Albertina gestures vaguely at the road behind them.

The two aunties nod at each other and stand up. ‘Come and see,’ Auntie Grace says to Albertina as she heads into the house. Albertina picks up her handbag and follows her through the little kitchen to the back yard. Auntie Rose follows, her left leg swings awkwardly as she walks.

Out in the yard is a little wendy house. Auntie Grace pulls the door open. ‘It needs a good clean but would you like to…’

Albertina throws her arms around Auntie Grace, who totters, slightly off balance. Auntie Grace laughs, disentangling herself.

‘There’s a little bathroom too,’ says Auntie Rose, pointing to a small lean-to next to the kitchen. ‘It only has cold water though…’

‘Albertina only washes in cold water,’ she says proudly.

The two aunties look at each other. ‘That’s settled then,’ says Auntie Grace. ‘Why don’t you make us some tea?’ Auntie Rose beckons to Albertina and leads the way to the kitchen.


Song of the Sea Goddess 
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Image credits: Wikipedia (unknown author), Somerset West Clinic

Location, Location, Location #23

Location No 23 – Basements and tunnels beneath Liverpool

Welcome to the latest stop on our literary tour through the pages of my novels. This week you’re going to need your hard hats as we venture into the mysterious network of tunnels and basements built beneath the fine city of Liverpool. These fictional tunnels from You’ll Never Walk Alone, are partly based on fact, although I embellished the extent of the network for the sake of the story.

When I was initially rummaging around in rabbit holes researching the background to the book, I came across this article which talks about a basement areas under Bold Street in the city centre, where Pierre and Lucy do some of their Sunday Shopping. In fact, I’ve referenced the before – you might even remember it if you were following the unfolding novel back in October 2018! One of the comments in the thread provided me with a big chunk of inspiration for my fictional tunnel network:

“I worked on a refurbishment prog (sic) in 1980 at the Adelphi hotel. A tunnel was found at the front of the hotel, it’s now covered over by the back bar in the night club. It was heading in the direction of Lewis’s or Central Station.”

Many of you will remember that I was once employed as an insurance surveyor, and in the course of some of my building inspections I tramped through many of the dusty, disused and fascinating parts of Liverpool’s panoply of historical edifices.

One of these was the Cotton Exchange. Remember how Liverpool was built on the Far Eastern trade of cotton and silk? Even in the distant days of my insurance career not much was left of the cotton trade in Liverpool and, at the time of my visit, this beautiful old building had fallen into disrepair. I remember being shown the old sample room where the quality of the merchants’ cotton was once assessed against the samples contained in a large beautifully crafted chest of drawers. But the basement held many treasures. Take a look.

Around the perimeter of this massive building there were a number of intriguing metal-clad doors which led from the pavement down into the basement storage level and it was this that captured my imagination for Pierre’s little bolt hole:

“I have just the place. Come, Lucy.” He held out his hand. Lucy took it and followed him as he ducked around the next corner and down a short flight of steps leading to a basement area. There was a heavy door at the bottom of the stairs and the window next to the door was boarded up. Pierre reached down and drew out a key from a recess under the bottom step. He fitted the key into the lock and turned it. The door swung open silently on well-oiled hinges...

A few paragraphs later, they finally make their escape through the basement and into the tunnels. Lucy is understandably unnerved when she and Pierre first enter…

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Excerpt from You’ll Never Walk Alone

“This way,” Pierre took Lucy’s hand and guided her out of the room into a dimly lit corridor. The heels of Lucy’s dancing shoes echoed on the tiled floor as they hurried past the closed doors on either side of the corridor. At the end there was a larger metal door with a plate which read ‘boiler room’. Pierre pulled the thick metal handle towards him and they stepped over the threshold. The door clanged shut behind them. They climbed down a short flight of metal steps and crossed the floor of the boiler room to another metal staircase which led to a sub-basement. At the far side of the lower basement there was a smaller unmarked door. Pierre pushed against.

“Okay, Lucy, through here.”

“It’s so dark. Where are we going, Pierre?”

“Hold on, just stand there a sec,” he said letting go of her hand and feeling along the wall. Lucy heard a click and a torch beam shone on the ground in front of her. Pierre shone the beam around revealing a tall, brick-lined tunnel.

“Where are we?” asked Lucy. “It’s not a sewer is it?

“You’d be able to smell if it was. No, this is part of a whole network of tunnels under the city.”

“How did you know about..?”

“Come on, Lucy,” just a bit further. “You’ll like where we come out.” Pierre sounded as if he was enjoying himself now.

“Okay, you’re the boss.”

Hand in hand they strode along the tunnel. Lucy focused on the torch beam, shutting out all thoughts of what might lurk beyond the pool of yellowy light. As they followed a branch in the tunnel which led off to the right, the gradient increased and a little further on, Lucy could make out the faint outline of a door. Pierre clicked off the torch and placed it in a small alcove alongside the door.

“Okay, Lucy, let me just check the coast is clear.” Pierre ducked inside the doorway and looked around. He gestured Lucy to follow.

Lucy stepped into another corridor and followed Pierre through the door opposite where they had come in. The room beyond was shrouded in gloom, but Lucy could make out a row of steel barrels and shelves containing cardboard boxes and bottles. They crept through the storeroom and found themselves behind a bar counter, looking out into a room containing an assortment of tables with chairs piled up on them. Pierre looked at Lucy and smiled.

“I know where this is. It’s that little bar at the side of the Adelphi Hotel.” Lucy said triumphantly.

“It certainly is,” Pierre held out his hand. “Follow me, let’s see about a room.”

We’ll likely be visiting the Adelphi Hotel another time!

You’ll Never Walk Alone is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook and on Kindle Unlimited
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Image credits: Liverpool Echo, Britannia Adelphi Hotel

Location, Location, Location #22

Location No. 22 – Somewhere in Yorkshire

On our literary tour this week we’re going on a little time-travelling detour. Let me take you back to my school-days when I deftly managed to avoid a week’s work experience by wangling my way onto a historical workshop run by a local theatre group.

There were about 10 of us from our all girls grammar school, and we were about to be transported to the time of the English Civil War, accompanied by a handful of enthusiastic actors, who were keen to recreate the correct conditions for our plight under the iron fist of the Royalists who held the walled City of York.

The historical details were somewhat lost on me, but the story was that our fathers, fearful for our safety, were sending us out of the city to an unspecified rural location, were we would conceal our identities as daughters of prominent Parliamentarians and assume the roles of farmer’s daughters.

There were various preparations including the fitting of period costumes and, for the sake of historical accuracy, being urged not to wash or wear modern undergarments (which of course we ignored). Then the following day, with minimal baggage and concealed toothbrushes, we were whisked away to the past in the theatre minibus.

We were undoubtedly too compliant for young ladies of the time thrown into such a situation, but eager to get into our roles we got down to work. There was much peeling to be done. I chiefly remember the potatoes and onions. The onion skins were boiled up to make a dye for some rather malodorous sheep’s wool, which was marinated overnight, and came up a vibrant shade of yellow the following day. We learned to card and spin wool. My spinning was woeful and I was sent to the kitchen to busy myself about the potatoes again. I learned to milk a cow which was brilliant, unlike the subsequent butter-making. Churning is absolutely arm-aching.

We were also shown the hayloft where we would hide should anyone in authority from the ‘wrong side’ come calling. Little did we know that the following evening we wouldn’t have time to hide.

The sun was setting and we’d finished our supper. We were all sitting together in the large room at the front of the farmhouse which looked out onto the yard. I chanced to look through the window to see a group of soldiers, wearing high boots and feather-plumed hats, marching towards the farmhouse. They were undoubtedly the enemy. Almost before I’d had time to call out a warning, they were hammering on the door.

They took the farmer into the back room. His wife followed. One soldier stayed guarding the door. We heard punches, screams and cries; furniture was being overturned. If we hadn’t been in character before, we certainly were in those few moments.

Then they emerged. The make-up was very realistic.

The soldiers moved on.

I really don’t recall what happened after that, but what an experience! One on which I was to draw on for a little piece, written about 30 years later, in a response to a writing group prompt: ‘A Scary Moment’. Revised and updated it became the first piece in my tiny collection of short fiction, released in 2018.

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The Day the Soldiers Came

I smile as I watch my mother play with my little brother Tommy on the hearth-rug. My father sits in his chair, still but alert. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I detect a movement in the yard.  I turn to look. Soldiers, four of them! By the way they are dressed, I know them instantly as ‘the enemy’. My father has followed my gaze as I gasp in fright and immediately he’s on his feet, sweeping up Tommy in the same movement and shoving him in my direction.

‘You know what to do Annie,’ he says quietly. He nods urgently at me and I grab Tommy’s hand and propel him through the kitchen. I look through the window, checking our route to the barn. It’s clear, so I open the door and we slide through and dash into the slatted wooden building. Behind us, I hear the soldiers hammering on the front door, shouting.

Although Tommy’s only little he knows what to do. Just as we’ve practiced so many times in recent months, I help him up the ladder to the hayloft. He doesn’t make a sound as we creep across the creaky boards and hide ourselves in the straw behind the loosely baled hay. We lie there, waiting. We haven’t practised what happens next. Then I hear a scream; I know it’s my mother, although the sound is like none I’ve ever heard her make. Her pain and terror flood my head. I grip Tommy tightly; he’s trembling and sobbing silently. The minutes tick by; I wonder what’s happening in the house. My father is shouting, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. The shouting stops abruptly and I hear the back door slam against the outside wall of the kitchen.

Heavy boots march towards the barn; I bite down hard on my knuckles. A cold fist contorts my stomach as I realise I forgot to drag the ladder up behind us. I hear the soldier’s heavy breathing down below. He’s pulling things over, searching. He approaches the ladder and in my mind’s eye I see him grab the ladder and place his boot on the first rung. Sweat runs down my back. Tommy is rigid in my arms.

There is a loud call from the house: ‘Move on!’ I hear the sound of the ladder clattering to the floor.  It settles and there is no sound apart from the blood pumping in my ears. Slowly I get up, my legs are shaking. I grab the rail at the edge of the loft and feel for the rope which we use as a swing when it’s too wet to play outside. Telling Tommy to stay where his is, I let myself down and run towards the back door which is gaping off its hinges.

Inside the house furniture has been overturned and one curtain has been ripped from the window. My mother cowers in a corner. Her blouse is torn and there is blood on her skirt. Father’s face is bruised and bloody. He reaches for her, but she turns her face to the wall.


The English Civil War, 1642 – 1651. Scenes from ‘Cromwell’ with Richard Harris and Alec Guinness, music by The Clash.

A Sextet of Shorts is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook and on Kindle Unlimited

Photo credits: naturalhomes.org, http://www.sheepcabana.com, pixels.com

Location, Location, Location #21

Location No 21 – Chinatown, Liverpool

Welcome to the latest stop on our literary tour through the pages of my novels. We’re parking up by this magnificent Chinese Arch as the coach driver has reminded me that we finished our tour of Toxteth with a promise to come back and visit Liverpool’s famous Chinatown. Here we are at the gateway.

Opened on Chinese New Year in 2000, the Arch was manufactured in Shanghai and shipped over to Liverpool in sections together with the Chinese workers who assembled it from 2000 pieces. It stands 13.5 metres (44 ft) high and boasts 200 hand carved dragons of which 188 are ordinary and 12 are pregnant, the meaning of which is to symbolise good fortune between Liverpool and Shanghai.

Liverpool’s Chinatown is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe. Their sailors were the first to arrive in the city in the 1830s when Chinese vessels arrived carrying silk and cotton. Many more came in the 1860s when the Blue Funnel Shipping Line was established by Alfred Holt, creating strong links between Liverpool, Shanghai and Hong Kong. By the 1890s, the Chinese were setting up their own businesses to cater to the needs of their own community. Many also married local women, often Irish immigrants.

During the Second World War, Liverpool became the headquarters of the Western Approaches which monitored and guarded the crucial lifelines across the Atlantic. Thousands of the Chinese sailors lost their lives to the Atlantic during attacks from German submarines and as part of the British fleet the Chinese sailors played an important role to Britain’s victory in the war. If you ever visit Liverpool, I strongly recommend a visit to the Western Approaches Museum.

Beyond the Chinese Arch is Nelson Street, where most of Liverpool’s Chinese restaurants are concentrated. There was always a brisk lunchtime trade, and I have fond memories of having lunches with intruder alarm reps, customers and colleagues, in particular a surveyor from Malaysia, who was desperately missing his ‘rice fix’. But the street really comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights when people pile in from the pubs and clubs in search of a late night meal.

My favourite of the many restaurants which line both sides of Nelson Street was the New Capital, formerly the Blue Funnel’s shipping and recruitment office, one reason being that I never carried out an insurance inspection of the kitchen! Believe me, there was more than one establishment on Nelson Street that I would definitely avoid. Let’s take a look at what’s on the menu. Looks good, doesn’t it?

Another of my favourite businesses was the Chung Wah Supermarket. Originally housed in a dilapidated three storey Victorian building, which was packed to the rafters and incredibly untidy (and virtually uninsurable), it was fortunately in the process of moving to a purpose-built premises, when I first carried out my inspection. The shiny new building was much more appealing insurance risk. The owner was a charming young man with some very interesting (Triad?) tattoos on his neck and wrists who, following my second inspection, insisted on giving me a lift into town as I’d arrived on the bus because my new company car had rolled off the transporter the previous day and stubbornly refused to start. I did a lot of grocery shopping in his store over the years!

But back to Nelson Street where, next door to New Capital restaurant, is The Nook. Sadly now closed, it was famous for being the only Chinese pub in England, and was a favourite with the Chinese seafaring community from the 1940s. I remember it being dark and dingy, with a pool table in the back room where a load of dodgy-looking Chinese characters used to hang out. The landlady was a very small but formidable woman who called ‘last orders’ in Cantonese. You wouldn’t argue with her or her ‘boys’!

In You’ll Never Walk Alone, I took a little bit of a liberty and placed ruthless Triad boss, Albie Chan’s office on the upper floor of the building. The basement also belongs to him.

Now, imagine it’s night time. It’s dark but the street and pub are still alive with the last of the late night revellers. Our hero, Pierre, has entered the building from the back entry and climbed the stairs to Albie Chan’s office. This is where the trouble really starts…

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Excerpt from You’ll Never Walk Alone

“Mr Chan, Mr Chan, Mr Chan!” Arms stretched wide open, the man who called himself Pierre Bezukhov strode across the floor, his high black boots raising dust from the carpet. “I have a new proposition for you.”

“Where is the necklace you promised me, Mr Bezukhov?” said the Asian man sitting behind the desk.

Pierre put his hands on the desk and leaned over towards Mr Chan, his long dark hair tumbling over his shoulders. “I’ve found something which I know you’re going to like so much better.”

“I commissioned you to procure a particular necklace. Where is it?”

“I’m afraid I no longer have it.” Pierre walked over to the grimy window. He stared out at the dark Liverpool rooftops. “I found a better home for it.”

Mr Chan frowned. “A better home? I do not understand you.”

“Listen, I have something else for you. Something better.”

“Mr Bezukhov,” Mr Chan said quietly. “I paid you a substantial sum to obtain a very specific item. I will accept no substitute.”

Turning to face him, Pierre reached into the pocket of his long brocade jacket and took out a small velvet bag. He held it up between thumb and forefinger. “Mr Chan, you don’t know what I’m offering. If you just care to…”

Mr Chan banged his fist on the desk. “No!” His eyes widened. “No substitutes.” He looked over at his tall henchman who had been lurking in the shadows by the door. “Ju-long!”

Ju-long stepped forward and smiled revealing two gold front teeth. Mr Chan nodded and Ju-long advanced on Pierre.

“Bring me the ruby necklace. I give you one week.”

“Well, if you’re not prepared even to look.” Pierre shrugged. Pocketing the little velvet bag, he turned back to the window.  In one swift movement he threw it open and swung onto the roof below. “Ta-ra, gentlemen!” And he was gone, skittering over the rooftop below and onto the wall of the back-alley, disturbing a cat which yowled indignantly.

“I’ll go after him, Mr Chan. Don’t worry, I’ll get the necklace from him.”

Albie Chan stood up and went to the window. He gazed across the inky black roofs. “Good. Find him and identify any associates he may have. Retrieve the necklace but do not harm him unduly. He may be useful to us.”

“Very good, Mr Chan.”  Ju-long bowed and quietly left the room.


You’ll Never Walk Alone is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook and on Kindle Unlimited
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Released 2 years ago this week!!

Image credits: Juan Jorge Arellano, liverpoolecho.co.uk

Location, Location, Location #19

Location No 19 – Bokkomlaan, Velddrift

Today on our literary journey through the pages of my novels we’re returning to the beautiful Berg River where it meets the wonderful West Coast of South Africa, one of my favourite places. This time we’re going a little way inland from our previous visit to Laaiplek where the story of ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’ first seeped into my imagination.

The Berg River rises in the mountains almost 200 miles to the south east, flowing north then west, disappearing and reappearing from a second mountain range, having joined up with a handful of seasonal streams from where it meanders towards the Atlantic Ocean through mudflats, reed beds and sandy scrub. In the summer at low tide careful navigation through the riverine channels is required.

Just a mile or two before the estuary at Laaiplek, the Berg River flows through Velddrift, where we find numerous little jetties reaching out into the river to which the local fishermen moor their little boats. One small section, Bokkomlaan, is particularly delightful. Bokkomlaan (Bokkom Lane) is named for ‘bokkoms’, small whole dried and salted fish (mullet) which are caught in this area. There are lots of little eateries to choose from, river trips and even an art gallery, all packed into one little lane by the banks of the Berg River. Let’s drop in for a spot of seafood and a lot of birdlife!

Come and have a look!

Bokkoms are something of an acquired taste in my opinion, but the fresh mullet, called ‘harders’ here, are delicious sprinkled with coarse salt and cooked over the braai (barbeque). Bought from the local fish shop, they are incredibly cheap and absolutely delicious, especially if helped down with a chilled bottle of one of our local wines.

Harders on the braai at our favourite haunt, River Tides, February 2021

Now, if you’ve finished licking the salt off your fingers, let’s join fisherman Sam as he takes his little boat up the river – a man on a mission with something to hide and a rumbling belly.

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Excerpt from ‘Song of the Sea Goddess’

Sam slows Porcupine’s engine. This part of the river can be tricky to navigate, especially when the water’s low. It is now well into the dry summer season when all the upland waters have already flowed down from the mountains. There is no more left to replenish the river until the rains come again. Sandbanks lie just beneath the surface of the water, waiting to catch the unwary, and Sam has no wish to run aground and risk becoming stranded. It gives him an idea though. He remembers there’s a tiny island a little further upstream. It’s only accessible by boat and it’s unlikely to be visited by anyone. There are no roads leading to this part of the river and no farms or dwellings near the river’s edge. Only the soggy reed beds. Sam smiles to himself and presses on. Birds dip and dive into the water in Porcupine’s wake, and Sam can see eddies where fish are being stirred up as the little boat progresses. There are plenty of them here. Sam’s stomach rumbles. A tasty river trout would be perfect for his supper.

The island comes into view around the next meander. There’s nowhere to tie up, so he drops the anchor.

Sam looks around. Up and downstream, and across over the open, empty marshland either side of the river. There is no one about. All is deserted apart from the insects that hover and the birds that stalk among the tall reeds. Beyond the marsh, cows graze on a strip of green, and in the distance, the purple and ochre of the distant mountains rise on either side of the wide river valley. The headland where Jannie found the cave, looks down on him. It dominates the landscape and looms over the ocean beyond. It too is deserted.

He listens. Only the sounds of nature and the water gently lapping against Porcupine’s hull reach his straining ears.

He opens the bow end storage compartment and takes out his fishing line and bait tin. There are still a few scraps of dried fish. Enough for him to quickly bait a couple of hooks. He throws the lines over the stern and secures them to the rail of boat, then kicking off his worn takkies, he grabs his spade and jumps over the side into the warm waist-height water. Within a couple of strides he’s standing on the grassy bank of the island.

The island is oval-shaped, no more than four times the length of his little boat. One small, solitary tree stands slightly off centre, its branches spreading low, dipping into the water at the upstream end of the island. He attacks sandy ground with his spade. It’s pretty hard work, since the sand keeps sliding back and refilling the hole, but slowly, slowly he’s making progress. After a few minutes more of steady digging, the spade strikes something hard. Not rock though. It makes the dull metallic clunk of metal on metal. Sam drops the spade and crouches down, scrabbling away at the sand with his hands.

Soon he’s uncovered a square metal box the length and width of his forearm. It’s rusted with age, but still sound. He feels around the edges, his hands seeking a way in. He locates the lip of the box and starts to dig down with his fingers. The sand is damp at this depth and separates from the side of the box easily. He peers into the hole. The lid of the box is a little deeper than his hand and is secured with a rusty hasp and staple. There’s no padlock though. Sam carefully pulls on the hasp and tugs open the lid. He reaches in and finds that the box is deeper than his forearm. He kneels down and peers in. It’s empty apart from a few pebbles and a thick layer of sand. He probes around with his fingertips. The box is sound; moreover it’s the perfect size in which to hide his treasure.

Sam jumps up and wades back out to the boat. Let me get this done quickly, he thinks to himself, as he clambers aboard. He drags the three sacks to the edge of the boat, then jumps back into the water. One by one, he swings the sacks from the deck onto the island then hauls them over the sand to the waiting box. Soon the gold is safely buried and Sam is smoothing the sand back into place. He scatters some twigs and stones over the site. No one would know that the ground’s been disturbed. He fixes the distance from the tree in his mind. He’s confident he’ll find it again.

Sam sits back on his heels and glances over his shoulder at Porcupine. The little boat is bobbing up and down in the water. Noticing that one of the fishing lines is straining, he hurries over to the edge of the island. Sure enough, something’s taken one of the baited hooks. He jumps into the boat and hurries over to examine the line. The river water is murky where it’s just been stirred up, but it must be a fish.

He wraps the line around his hand and starts to pull steadily. The line moves easily at first, but then the fish begins to fight. It must be a big one. Sam lets the line slacken a little to allow him to wrap his other hand around the line. As it tightens again it bites into his flesh, but Sam’s not going to let go. He pulls again steadily, ignoring the pain in his hands. The hook’s holding, so he puts all his effort into the struggle, bracing one foot against the boat’s rail.

Then he tugs sharply on the line. The silvery head of a large trout breaks the surface, but something’s holding on to the fish. Two slender hands appear, the long fingers wrapped around the belly of the fish. Sam gasps: what in the world..?

Then she breaks the surface. Sam is confronted by the face of a pretty young woman with bright blue-green eyes set in a pale oval-shaped face, which is framed with long dark hair that clings to her skin.

‘Let go of my fish,’ she cries indignantly. ‘It’s mine, I saw it first. I’ve been chasing it for ages and now it’s got caught in your stupid line.’

Sam opens his mouth, but words fail him.

‘Give me my fish,’ she says, tugging on the slippery creature, whose mouth is also working now that it’s out of the water. ‘Well..?’ Her eyes flash angrily.

‘I… I…’ stutters Sam.

She glides towards him and his eyes are drawn to the slender body, which is still submerged just beneath the surface of the water. Her hair swirls around her naked shoulders. His eyes travel down her back and, at first, Sam thinks she is wearing a tight silver skirt, but then he notices the glistening, fish-like scales.

It seems that Sam has caught a mermaid.


Song of the Sea Goddess

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Photo credits: westcoastway.co.za, Cliff Davies

Location, Location, Location #18

Location No 18 – Delamere Forest, Cheshire, UK

Let’s hop on the tour bus today and leave the big city behind. Our latest stop on the literary tour through the pages of my novels takes us to Delamere Forest in the heart of the Cheshire countryside. If we’re in Cheshire, we must be Following the Green Rabbit, which seems appropriate for this Easter weekend.

Delamere Forest, in the north-west of England, is also known as the ‘forest of the lakes’. It is the largest area of woodland in the country and it’s an ancient woodland too: the remains of the great forests of Mara and Mondrem, hunting areas which date back to the 11th century. It’s still an important recreational site, although now for walking, hiking and cycling rather than chasing down deer and wild boar.

It’s also on the way to Beeston Reclamation, a large architectural antiques retailers, which we visited several times when we were renovating our last house in Liverpool. One time, we were looking for some quarry tiles to replace the broken ones we found under the hideous green carpet we took up in the lounge-dining room. What a happy find that floor was! Happier still, while we were looking at the tiles that were available, we got chatting to someone who was looking to off-load a pile of the very same tiles – all for free so long as we went to fetch them – which, of course, we did.

But back to Delamere Forest. The narrow country road which cuts north-south through the forest has the feel of an old Roman road. The trees rise on either side giving you a feeling of being in a great green tunnel, especially in summer.

I remember visiting Delamere Forest one late spring day and coming upon a glade of bluebells. It was a magical site. One I took away with me and eventually incorporated into the creation of Bluebell Wood, the small woodland which lies just beyond the orchard belonging to the house where Bryony and Bethany from Following the Green Rabbit live. Geographically speaking, Delamere Forest is not so far from Daresbury, the Cheshire village which, in my imagination, became the principal backdrop to the novel. I just had to drag a little piece of forest about 10 miles north-east. The Forest’s ancient nature also fuelled my imagination for the story and, of course, for heroines Bryony and Bethany, living so close to a ‘forbidden’ woodland makes for a great start to an adventure.

Now let’s hop off the bus and feel the warmth of the breeze on our faces. Let’s walk a little way and find a perfect patch of grass, lie down and look up at the clouds. What can you see?

Excerpt from Following the Green Rabbit

“Come and look at the clouds with me,” Bethany shouted. She was sitting on the soft grass, legs stretched out, leaning back on her hands, her golden curls tumbling over her shoulders. “Come on, Briney.”

Bryony gathered her things and went to join her sister. They lay on the grass, heads touching, staring up at the blue summer sky. “Look, there’s a squirrel,” she pointed at a fat round cloud, dragging a wispy plume behind it.

“I think it looks more like Celia’s cat. Tom said we might have one of her kittens when they’re old enough.”

“If Hodge lets us.”

“She will if we ask her nicely.”

Bryony was pointing again, over to the left. “Doesn’t that one look just like Clara?” Clara was Bryony’s favourite hen, a little round bantam with snowy white feathers and frills on her feet. She closed her eyes and listened to the insects buzzing around the fruit trees. Tom was pleased with them and a bumper crop of apples, cherries and plums was anticipated.

Bethany sighed. “I wish we could stay like this forever.”

“With no Mr Eyre.”

“He can’t be worse than Miss Calderbridge.”

“With her stupid pointy nose and her silly stuck up voice.”

Both girls giggled. Bryony rolled over on her stomach. “Mama hasn’t been very good at picking our tutors so far, has she?” She plucked a daisy from the grass and examined it. “I suppose it’s harder when you’re so far away.”

“What’s it like in India?” Bethany turned on one side and looked at her sister.

“Well, the garden with all those roses on that postcard Mama sent looked a bit like ours didn’t it? But it’s much, much hotter there.”

They had been silent for a little while, when suddenly they heard something rustling in the bushes by the fence behind them. They looked round to see an enormous rabbit emerge, nose twitching. His fur was grey-brown with a slight tinge of green. He nibbled on a piece of long grass and then hopped past them. He was so close that Bryony could have stretched out and touched him. He stopped by the first tree and sat up on his hind legs. Then he turned and looked directly at them.

“That’s the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen. Look at his fur.” Bryony whispered.

The rabbit’s ears twitched. “Do you think he wants us to follow him?” Bethany whispered back.

Bryony laughed. “You’re not Alice.” It was only last year that Bryony had read ‘Alice in Wonderland’ to her.

“But look, Briney.” The rabbit had raised a paw in their direction. “I’ll just go a bit nearer.” She stood up slowly so as not to alarm the creature, then took a few steps towards him.

The rabbit hopped off as far as the next stand of apple trees. He stopped and turned, looking up at Bethany with his dark brown eyes. His left ear bent quizzically. She looked back at Bryony. “I’m going to follow him.”

Bryony watched her sister scamper off after the rabbit. At twelve, going on thirteen, she felt she was a bit old to be running after rabbits, even if it was an exceptional-looking animal. She rolled over on her back and resumed her contemplation of the clouds. They formed pictures in her mind; pictures which she would later turn into stories. Miss Calderbridge had not approved of her work. Far from it. ‘Too fanciful’, she’d said in that prissy high voice. Fortunately she’s left soon after that particular pronouncement. That had been more than two months ago and Bryony’s note book was more than half full now. She hoped Mr Eyre would be more sympathetic and not try to force useless mathematical problems down her throat. She was going to be a writer. What possible use was algebra?

Bryony was distracted by thoughts of Mr Eyre. How old was he? Might he be young and handsome? Mama’s letter hadn’t mentioned these things. Her eyes refocused on the sky. She let her imagination run free, then struck by a burst of inspiration, she sat up. After a few minutes’ thought she snatched up her note book and pencil and hurried over to the bench under the oak tree, one of her favourite writing spots. Starting on a new page she wrote the words, Bethany and the Great Green Rabbit. She sucked the end of her pencil for a moment then began to write.

Bryony wrote five pages in her closely written script as her story unfolded. Eventually she came to a halt and closed the note book, a satisfied smile on her face. She looked up through the rich canopy of oak leaves which shielded her from the summer sunshine. The shadows had shortened. She’d better go and find her sister. Bryony leapt to her feet and stowed the note book and pencil in her pinafore pocket before setting off through the orchard.

There was a small woodland at the far side. The girls weren’t really supposed to go in there, but they often had, although only as far as the first clearing. No doubt Bethany would be picking bluebells there.

When Bryony reached the clearing, sure enough, there she was sitting on a fallen log. Her long, golden hair obscured her face. She was looking down, examining something she was holding in her hands.

“What have you got there?” Bryony asked as she sat down next to her sister. Bethany held out a tiny wooden object. It just fitted into the palm of her hand. It was a carving of a little bird, which had once been painted; brown feathers on its back and red on its breast. A robin. “It’s lovely, Beth, where did you find it?”


FOLLOWING THE GREEN RABBIT
~ a fantastical adventure

available in paperback and ebook
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Image credits: woodlandtrust.org.uk, visit-chester.co.uk
Cloud photo by Laurette van de Merwe

Location, Location, Location #17

Today, we’re just a stone’s throw away from our previous stop on our literary journey through the pages of my novels, but this time we’re catching up with Laura from The Silver Locket.

Here we are at one of the entrances to Princes Park, another of Liverpool’s urban oases, and a location mentioned in both You’ll Never Walk Alone and The Silver Locket. Time-wise, the books are set a few years apart, with You’ll Never Walk Alone being set sometime in the mid 1980s and The Silver Locket in 1989. Maybe one day, the paths of some of the characters from the two books will cross!

In the excerpt below, we join Laura who’s travelled from Rufford on the train to Liverpool to meet the reclusive Ceridwen, who is something of a specialist in strange objects like the locket that Laura’s found under the floorboards of the house she’s inherited. I decided to put Ceridwen in a flat overlooking Princes Park, based on a place I’d have loved to have lived in and so fictionally I could go back and spend a little more time there.

Back in September 1984, I was looking for a new place to stay after I’d graduated and left the house I’d shared in my final year. Of course, back then there were no online sites on which to seek a flat, nor were there any mobile phones, so I was armed with a copy of the Liverpool Echo, folded to the ‘flats for rent’ section, and a pocketful of 10 pence pieces for a public phone box.

I’d already decided I wanted to move across the city to South Liverpool, where a number of my friends had flats. I’d been kipping on the ‘imprompu chaise-longue’ in a friend’s house for a week or so and it was high time I moved on. Having narrowed down my search, the first flat I viewed that afternoon was on the first floor of a huge high-ceilinged converted house on Devonshire Road, right next to Princes Park. The large bed-sitting room, with its curtained-off kitchen, was at the back of the house. The bathroom was down the hall, but only shared with one other flat, which was across the landing. But what really impressed me was the view over the Park. It was stunning! And the room was even within my price range (just).

I still had another place to view, which wasn’t far away, so off I went, telling the landlord I’d phone him straight afterwards, because I was very, very keen on his place. Sadly, however, by the time I found an unvandalised phone box, the ‘room with a view’ had already been taken by someone else. The flat I ended up in was that second one. It was, of course, in the house that belonged to a Chinese landlord – my Tony Wong, from You’ll Never Walk Alone. Who knows what would have happened to that novel without him in my head!

But back to Princes Park and the view from Devonshire Road. From here you can almost see the grave of Judy the Donkey, who was buried on the site of her favourite grazing spot back in 1926. Judy  worked in Princes Park for 21 of her 26 years. Not just a donkey for children’s pleasure riding, she was a working animal helping the gardeners by pulling a cart for them.

It’s such a lovely little memorial that couldn’t resist mentioning it in the book. A tiny reference to Judy’s grave appears a few pages further along from today’s excerpt where we catch up with Laura on her visit to the mysterious Ceridwen in that lovely ‘room with a view’.

Visit the Friends of Princes Park for a host of information including Judy’s story

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Excerpt from The Silver Locket

The following afternoon Laura was in a black taxi cab heading from Lime Street station to the southern suburbs of Liverpool, clutching a local address in her hand. The locket and an envelope containing forty seven pounds, were tucked into the inside packet of her handbag.

The taxi slowed and turned into the broad driveway of a large double-fronted Georgian house. Laura paid the driver and walked up to the front door. The house had been divided into six flats; she pressed the buzzer for Flat 4. Laura still didn’t know the name of the woman she was about to meet. The jeweller’s friend had arranged the appointment for three o’clock, but had only passed on the address. The woman was apparently very nervous about giving out any personal information.

“Yes,” a low voice answered the intercom.

“It’s Laura Peterson; I have an appointment at three o’clock.”

“Come up, Laura. My flat’s on the first floor landing, on the right.”

The front door unlocked and Laura went in. The entrance hall was rather grand, if somewhat dilapidated. There was a large table to the side of the door with the usual mixture of circulars and uncollected post, common to shared houses. A bicycle was chained to the iron balusters at the foot of the stairs.

The door to Flat 4 was standing slightly ajar. Laura knocked gently.

“Come in,” said the low voice.

Laura pushed open the door. The room was large with a high ceiling.  The blinds were closed and the room was warm and rather stuffy. Laura closed the door gently and peered into the gloom.

“Come, my dear.” The voice came from a chaise-longue which stood next to the empty fireplace. Laura saw a slight figure, dressed in flowing garments, rising to greet her.

Laura crossed the room, the heels of her shoes noisy on the wooden floor.

“Hi, I’m Laura,” she said holding out her hand. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

The woman made no attempt to take Laura’s outstretched hand.

“Please sit down, Laura,” she said, indicating a low armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace. My name is Ceridwen. I must apologise for not taking your hand just yet, but you will understand why presently.”

Laura sat down.

“Can I bring you some tea, Laura?”

Laura nodded. Ceridwen disappeared behind a curtain on the far side of the room. Laura heard her filling a kettle. Something brushed against Laura’s knee. She looked down and saw a green-eyed cat looking up at her. She stroked the cat’s soft grey head.

Ceridwen returned carrying a tray which held a painted china teapot and two matching mugs. “I see Cullen has introduced himself to you.”

The cat stood up, stretched and walked off. Laura watched as he jumped up onto the windowsill, nosing his way behind the drawn blind.

“Keeping a look out, eh?” said Laura.

Ceridwen said nothing. She poured the tea and handed a mug to Laura.  The brown liquid had a pungent, slightly antiseptic smell.

“A herbal mixture of my own.  It aids precision of thought and clarity of understanding. I think you’ll find it refreshing.”

Laura sipped the tea; it actually tasted rather pleasant.

“So,” said Ceridwen, pushing back her long red hair, “you have something to show me.”

Laura reached into her handbag and drew out the locket. She slipped it out of its wrapper and held it out to her.

“I found it…” began Laura.

Ceridwen held up her hand. “No, don’t tell me anything about it yet. May I hold it please?”

Ceridwen took the locket, as she did so she avoided touching Laura’s hand. She drew in a sharp breath and closed her eyes, running her thumb gently over the face of the locket. She sat there, motionless for several minutes, then clasping the locket in her fist, she opened her eyes, leant over and switched on the lamp which stood on the table beside her.

“Now Laura, I’d like you to tell me all you can about the locket. Where you found it, what you’ve observed about it, what it means to you.”

Laura paused. “It’s complicated.”

“Take you time, my dear. Start with the facts. Don’t worry if your story seems strange or fanciful.  That’s why you’re here with me now.”

Laura recounted all she could from finding the locket to the most recent dream in which the little face had been different from the one Laura knew. While she was speaking, Ceridwen was carefully examining the locket. As Laura finished speaking, she was studying the oval mark intently.

On the windowsill, Cullen uttered a low, menacing sound. Laura could see his silhouette through the blind, his back arched, head erect.

“Would you mind going to see what he’s growling about? It must be something in the park outside.”

Laura went to the window and raised the edge of the blind. A solitary figure in a brown coat was looking up at the window. The figure was too far away for Laura to make out her face, but it looked awfully like the old woman from the churchyard; the same woman who had appeared outside the jewellers and whom Laura had seen leaving the station earlier.

Cullen continued to growl. The woman turned and hurried away. Cullen sat back down on the windowsill and was quiet again, his fur settling back into place.

Laura returned to her seat. “It’s strange; I keep seeing this woman in a brown coat. It’s as if she’s following me. But when she realises I’ve seen her, she rushes off. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I’m sure that was her again, just standing there looking up at the window. I couldn’t see anything else which might have disturbed your cat.”

“She could be following this.” Ceridwen held up the locket.


The Silver Locket
(written under pen name Holly Atkins) is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

USA UK ~ ESPCAN ~ AUS ~ IND ~ the rest of the world


Image credits:

http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk (Welcome to Princes Park)

Colin Lane (aerial view of Princes Park) on http://www.nearlythereyet.co.uk

Rodhullandemu (Devonshire Road) Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Location, Location, Location #16

Location No 16 – Toxteth, Liverpool 8

This time on our literary tour through the pages of my novels, we return to 1980s Liverpool and visit Toxteth, an inner city area through which the characters of You’ll Never Walk Alone frequently pass.

I doubt that many people outside the UK will have heard of Toxteth, and even anyone who has will probably associate it only with the headline-hitting riots of the summer of 1981. As it happened, I moved to Liverpool that autumn, although initially to a different part of the city, but three years later, I’d moved to the south of the city and was living in bedsit in a large, three storey dwelling on the edge of Toxteth. It was on this house, complete with its Chinese landlord, who lived in the room opposite mine, that the house occupied by the main characters in the You’ll Never Walk Alone was based.

At one time, Toxteth had been rather grand. In the 18th and 19th centuries the district became home to the wealthy merchants of Liverpool, alongside a much larger, poor population, living in modest Victorian terraces, who came from all around the world to work as dockers and builders. Come the late 1970s, Liverpool, and Liverpool 8 in particular, had been badly hit by economic stagnation and unemployment, sowing the seeds of a growing unrest that escalated and eventually led to the riots. You can read more about ‘The Summer Liverpool burned’ here.

By the 1980s many of the large Georgian and Victorian houses were converted into flats, mainly occupied by students and others on very modest incomes. Crime levels rocketed, especially house-breaking. My landlord, on whom the fictional Tony Wong is based, owned a second property on Princes Road, one of the main thoroughfares in L8, and I put minor characters, Mark and Stu, in a very similar basement flat (‘The Bunker’). We briefly visit the Bunker in a later chapter and the security measures described are no exaggeration. I remember them well, since a succession of my friends lived there in the mid-80s.

It was one evening in 1984 that a friend and I were walking back to my house from that very basement flat. We happened to come across a couple of young guys who were trying to push start an old van. By chance, I bumped into one of them up by the University only a few days later. Reader, I (eventually) married him; but that, as they say, is another story.

Regeneration began in parts of the area in the 1990s and the area was gradually gentrified and transformed. This is Princes Boulevard today.

Moving onwards towards the city centre, as we do in today’s book excerpt, we walk down the formerly grand boulevards with their blackened exteriors and boarded up windows, passing St Luke’s ‘bombed out church’ (seen in a previous tour), then crossing the road past ‘The Blackie’, which was once a chapel and later a community centre. It was so-called because the walls had been blackened by the soot and smoke over many decades. Finally we come to Liverpool’s Chinatown, the oldest Chinese community in Europe, but it’s getting late, so we’ll come back and have a proper look around here another day.

‘The Blackie’ (left) now cleaned up and (right) the beautiful archway through which you enter Liverpool’s Chinatown that was brought from Shanghai and re-erected, piece by piece, in 2000.

In the following excerpt, Tony Wong takes an after-dark walk into the city centre. Why Asmar, his tenant Cynthia’s cat, follows Tony into town isn’t immediately apparent, but let’s just say that later on in the story it was just as well he did.

It was this journey, in which Tony Wong was not alone as he ventured into Chinatown, which partly inspired the title of the novel. The fact that it’s also the title of Liverpool Football Club’s well-known anthem is (largely) coincidental. The song, You’ll Never Walk Alone, was written by Rogers and Hammerstein for the musical, Carousel. If you’re not familiar with it, you can listen to a selection of excellent renditions by moseying on over to see Jen Goldie who, by happy coincidence, just happened to post them earlier this week.

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Excerpt from You’ll Never Walk Alone

Tony Wong had been woken by the beep of his Casio watch. He lifted his head from the cushion and listened. The house was quiet. He pushed the coverless duvet over the back of the couch and stood up.  He pulled on his suit trousers and tucked the shirt he had been wearing earlier that day into the waistband.  He pulled on socks and pushed his feet into scuffed white plimsolls.

Shuffling past the coffee table, he approached the wide bay window and drew aside one of the heavy curtains, the velvety fabric was stiff and slightly sticky to the touch.  Peering around the curtain he checked outside.  Pools of orange light illuminated the empty street, reflecting in the puddles of the day’s rain. Letting the curtain fall back into place he picked up a folded note from the table. He re-read the Chinese symbols and stuffed the note into his pocket. Then he put on his jacket and took his keys from the chest by the door. He unlocked his door and listened.  The hallway was silent.  He glanced at Cynthia’s door opposite and saw the post-it note by the payphone on the wall. He didn’t stop to read the message.

He opened the front door with his key. The large panelled door swung open easily.  Streetlight played on the frosted glass casting awkward patterns on the tiled floor of the hall.  Tony stepped out and carefully locked the door behind him. His tennis shoes were silent on the worn sandstone steps that led down to the path.  At the foot of the steep driveway he turned and headed towards the main road.

Asmar detached himself from the garden shadows and padded silently behind him.  His red-gold coat glowed in the light from the street lamps.

Tony Wong trudged purposefully towards the city centre, the cat following.  The midweek traffic was light: just the occasional black cab.  Up ahead a police car, blue lights flashing, siren off, crossed the intersection of Princes Road and Duke Street.  The tall red brick houses with their blank, black windows were silent.  Once the dwellings of rich merchants, some had been converted to bed-sitters over cheap shops, whilst the many boarded up and blackened buildings were the legacy of the notorious riots which had happened a few summers ago.

Man and cat crossed Berry Street by the bombed-out church on the corner with its well-tended public gardens. The church had remained unrestored, a monument to the devastation of the city of World War Two.  Trying to ignore the sounds of the couple who were busy in the grounds of the community building known as The Blackie opposite, Tony pressed on.  He heard the man grunt and swear, then saw him push the girl away.  Tony glanced towards them and saw the man zip up his jeans, while the girl straightened her short orange skirt. He watched them part without a word, he to the cab rank while she, on spikey white heels, stalked back up the hill towards the cathedral.

The lights were still on in the Nelson Street restaurants, the boundary between club land and Chinatown.  Two men holding takeaway cartons swayed past Tony Wong.  ‘All right, China?’ one asked him cheerfully.  The other mumbled something and they both chortled as they staggered off up the road.

Asmar remained out of sight clinging to the shadows, skipping up and down through the basement areas and railings.

A few yards further on Tony Wong paused and looked around. Sure that no-one was watching he darted down the passageway into the back entry of the famous Chinese pub which in English was called ‘The Nook’.  He picked his way along the rubbish strewn alleyway trying not to think about what might be lurking there.  The cat followed carefully along the top of the wall avoiding the glass shards which had been set in concrete on the wall-top as a security measure. Turning the corner, Tony Wong scampered up the steps at the rear of the building. As he opened the door, light flooded the entry.  He closed it quickly, trying to ignore the flurry of scurrying amongst the rubbish.

Asmar settled down on the wall and waited.


You’ll Never Walk Alone is available from Amazon in paperback and ebook and on Kindle Unlimited
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Image credits: Liverpool Echo, Liverpool City Council