Friday, 27 May 2016

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes


Everyone is talking about the book and the film is about to be released with huge media attention. If you haven't read the book yet, here is my review of Jojo Moyes' latest bestseller. This post doesn't contain any spoilers.

Me Before You is a story about Louisa Clark, a bright young woman who is growing bored of her fitness-obsessed boyfriend and is fed up when the café in which she's worked for years, closes down. Reluctantly she accepts a temporary six month post as a carer to a young man who has been left in a quadriplegic state following a road accident two years earlier. It was either that, or work at a local chicken factory!

Will Traynor used to have an exciting well paid job, buying and selling businesses. He’s travelled the world, skiing, parachuting, diving and climbing. In the blink of an eye, his life was turned up-side down one morning as he crossed the road to hail a taxi. Will is bitter and angry, especially when his glamorous girlfriend moves on and dates a mutual friend of theirs. His family are at the end of their tether and shortly after Louisa is taken on as his carer, she hatches a desperate plan to try to convince Will that his life is worth living.

This storyline may sound a bit grim and depressing - I thought the same when I read the blurb, but I’m so pleased I overlooked my initial misgivings. Jojo Moyes writes with sensitivity and humour. She tackles the subject of quadriplegia and the rights of disabled people with great perception and compassion. The descriptions of Will's day to day existence which involves relying on others for almost every aspect of his personal care, was written with warmth and understanding.

Jojo Moyes has written a novel which has left me emotionally exhausted, inspired and incredibly impressed. Me Before You gripped me like a spiny teasel clings to clothing. I resented being drawn away from the story by household chores and the necessity of sleep and work. I frowned at the dogs as I sensed the hues outside the window become darker because a dog walk would tear me from Will and Lou. It took three days to finish Me Before You due to daily commitments, but even at work or trudging around the village green, with my spaniels, the story never left my thoughts. I found myself grinning inanely at a page one minute and wiping tears from my cheeks the next. It was an emotional, uplifting, life-affirming read. I became emotionally involved with the characters and in the storyline.

Jojo Moyes has written a book which will stay with me for a long time.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The London Book Fair 2016 And Meeting An Agent


Every New Year I start counting down the weeks until I visit The London Book Fair in the Spring and this year I spent two days at the fair's 45th anniversary event. Although Olympia is more difficult to get to than Earl's Court (where the fair used to be held), its natural lighting and a balcony view of events and stands, make it an altogether more pleasant internal space. There's always a huge amount to be discovered at the fair. There were companies that could convert your book to digital, seminars that showed different approaches to marketing and the exciting thing is, you just might have a chance meeting that could lead to future success. Publishing professionals from around the world meet each year, to learn, network and do business. The London Book Fair is the leading global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels. The fair is a unique opportunity to explore, understand and capitalise on the innovations shaping the publishing world of the future.


On Tuesday 12th April I saw some of the industry’s leading names, including acclaimed British novelist, screenwriter, director and actor, Julian Fellowes and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale. Jeffrey Archer was also spotted in the English PEN Literary Salon where he shared his thoughts on all things publishing.


Tuesday’s Author of the Day was Marian Keyes. Marian is one of the most successful Irish novelists of all time. Storming into print in 1995 with Watermelon, Marian created a genre that she has dominated and redefined ever since. What a lovely lady with a delicious sense of humour.


Wednesday was a Shakespearian experience which was apt as it was the eve of the four hundred year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. There was a full line-up of inspired readings, talks and appearances about and written by the Bard of Avon. The London Book Fair 2016 welcomed renowned writers to the stage in his honor. I listened to Tracy Chevalier at the English PEN Literary Salon, where she told a packed audience about her upcoming Hogarth Shakespeare project.

Wednesday’s Fair was also visited by prolific cookery book authors, Si and Dave. (Maybe you know them as the Hairy Bikers.) They visited their publisher Orion, at the Hachette stand.

It's easy to meet fellow writers in the cafes and become engrossed in conversation, swapping notes and simply enjoying the company of other writers who'd come to explore. This year a handful of writers had been given the chance to secure a one-to-one chat with a literary agent by submitting a chapter and synopsis, weeks before The London Book Fair started. I was delighted to have my work chosen and I was emailed by Midas PR and given a time to meet the agent. I met another lady who had also been selected to speak with a different agent, and I was delighted to have a chat with her and ease our nerves before our meetings. Sadly it wasn’t a pitch with an agent, but I had an interesting talk in the Author HQ theatre with Ed Victor Limited’s, Charlie Brotherstone. We discussed Vichy France, the continued popularity of war novels and the publishing industry in general. I did wonder why we'd been asked to submit sample work, but I imagine it’s because they wanted agents to meet with writers who were serious about their craft and had written complete novels.


Now it's back to work by continuing to write my fourth novel. I have until the end of August to send my manuscript to the Romantic Novelists' Association's New Writers' Scheme, so I'd better get writing...

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Bromley House Library

'If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.'
Marcus Tullus Cicero (106-43 BC)


I've lived in Nottingham for most of my life. I thought I knew every park, every bookshop, every corner and every alleyway. So it was with astonishment and delight that I was introduced to Bromley House Library. Hidden away between two uninspiring shops, stood the large wooden door to Bromley House, a Grade 2 listed town house, built in 1752.

As I climbed the stone stairs I wondered how many thousands of people had walked up this stairwell, each searching for escape into another world through the port hole of a book. I reached the library's door and what a treasure trove lay behind it. Rooms full of Georgian features, shelves groaning under the weight of books old and new, a reading room with armchairs ready to cushion weary thighs, an old spiral staircase leading to a gallery of more delicious bookshelves, a meridian line sparkling gold on the floor in the midday sun and outside - an original walled garden.

Bromley House had an amazing atmosphere too; a sense of history, knowledge, friendships past and present, sanctuary, contemplation and peace. I took a few photographs so I can share with you all, this remarkable building.


The reading room full of books, oil paintings and comfortable furniture in which to relax and read, and a large table for studying at.


Oil paintings, a grandfather clock and a very old ornate wrought iron spiral staircase leading to a gallery and further rooms.


An operational meridian line which runs through one of the reading rooms.


The library has been operating continuously since 1816. It has a collection of 40,000 books with new acquisitions each month.


The library is a rich resource for research, whether you want to study history or just read a contemporary novel or non-fiction book.


There's also a room available for making refreshments where a variety of newspapers are available to read. Bromley House is also a venue for talks, book launches and exhibitions. It was here that the first photographic studio in Nottingham operated from 1841.

If you'd like to find out more about the library or arrange a visit, you'll find more information here.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

It's All About The Story at Choc Lit


I've been known to hang around Choc Lit's hot-pink stand at the London Book Fair in the past, trying hard not to look like a crazed fan. What I love about their submission process, is that submitted manuscripts are read by genuine readers and they only publish books their readers want to see in print. What better recommendation is there than that?

Choc Lit was established in 2009 and I've seen them grown into a highly respected independent publisher of quality women’s romantic fiction. They've won eleven awards, including the 2012 and 2013 Publisher of the Year and the 2012 Romantic Novel of the Year. Their books are available as ebooks and paperbacks and are distributed world-wide.

Last Monday I was sitting in bed at the end of a busy day, scrolling through my twitter notifications. I was confused to see lots of tweets congratulating me along with several other writers. After a little investigating, I discovered that I'd been shortlisted for Choc Lit's Search for a Star competition. Who'd have thought it? I shrieked for my husband to come out of the bathroom. My brave hero came out clutching a fist of scrunched up tissue thinking I'd seen a spider, because I tend to shriek when I see one. Who doesn't? Okay, lots of people, but I do.
I've been thrilled to bits all week and if I was more agile, I'd jump from the kitchen table and click my heels together.

My writing story began eight years ago when my three children became more independent and I discovered that I had more time to devote to my passion of storytelling. I soon realised that an imagination wasn't quite enough. I needed to learn the craft of novel writing.
I joined Nottingham Writers' Studio and an off-shoot fiction group attached to the studio. Here a small group of writers critique each other's work every month. I know my writing and my editing has benefitted hugely from these meetings. Slowly my first novel began to develop. I would urge new writers to join a group in their area. As well as a great social scene with like-minded people, there's also so much to learn from speakers and workshops. I also took the opportunity of attending writing masterclasses in Nottingham, London and at local libraries. I read constantly, entered competitions, visited both local and London book fairs and began this blog. However, nothing beats shutting myself in my writing room in the garden (a present for a special anniversary from my husband) and having imaginary conversations with my characters. It's a sanctuary of peace and quiet.

My writing room.

My writing gradually improved over the years and to my delight and surprise, I began to win local competitions. I joined the Romantic Novelists' Association's New Writers' Scheme and had my manuscript professionally critiqued. With revisions made, I entered another competition, this time a national one where writers were asked to submit the first chapter of an unpublished novel. To coin a phrase, you could have knocked me down with a feather when I discovered I'd won with the first chapter of Lies and Linguine, my first novel. Since then I've written another contemporary novel set in London and also one telling the story of a farmer's daughter living in a small village in France, during World War 2. (Of course there is a love interest threaded throughout the story despite the subject matter.) At the moment I'm writing my fourth book, also during in World War 2 but this time in occupied Paris.

In November 2015 my third book, All Is Fair, was shortlisted for the Love Stories 2015 New Talent Award held in London, by the Festival Of Romance. I didn't win, but wow, what a wonderful day out I had at Jewell, Piccadilly, with prosecco flowing and cup cakes laid out on the tables. I met several authors I'd spoken to on twitter and what a lovely bunch of ladies they were.

There's no doubt that rejections are hard to take and like many writers, I sometimes wonder if I'm good enough. Doubt has a habit of creeping up unexpectedly before I remind myself that I love the actual process of writing books. Whether or not I'm ever published, I know I'll continue telling stories because it's my favourite thing in the world to do.

A speaker once said at Earl's Court, that every writer must take a turn in the cold shower of rejection. I'd like to thank all the team at Choc Lit and their readers for turning the thermostat up a notch for me.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

My Latest Chapter

It's may be against her will, but a sudden realisation that she's a collaborator, shocks Matilde. Things are going to change...


Matilde was late for work. She hurried along garden pathways of the Tuileries’ having lingered in Xavier’s arms a little too long before rising. As she approached the museum, she noticed yet more red and black flags adorning the building. They snapped and flicked in the wind, their cords rattling against their flagstaffs. It seemed to her that the number of banners in the city had doubled as the population diminished. It was as if the Germans were replacing each fleeing French citizen with a swastika. The Parisians that remained were forbidden to use public spaces; the same parks and squares where they had grown up. Matilde felt that the Germans had multiplied the oppressive effect of being occupied. Buildings had grown tyrannical, days longer and the Seine, blacker.
It was Monday and the beginning of her fifth week. Matilde’s shoes click-clacked along the museum’s corridors, yellowed with subdued lighting, before setting about her morning routine in her windowless office. At least she didn’t have to sit with Gertrude. Small blessings. She turned on an electric heater and heard it begin to click as the elements heated up. She knew from experience that it would be half an hour before the room was warm enough to remove her coat.
Matilde laid out a suede mat for examining each piece of jewelry, removed the cover of her typewriter and polished her magnifying glass. She breathed on the glass and rubbed it against the hem of her skirt. Just as she was about to leave and collect another box to be sifted through, Kommandant Beitel and another man walked into her office. She hadn’t seen the Kommandant since their first meeting and she silently berated herself for blushing in surprise.
He looked at her, his features showing no emotion. His back was straight and his chin was raised. ‘Good morning, Madame Guillon. I trust you are well?’
Matilde laid the magnifying glass on her desk. ‘Very well, thank you, Herr Beitel.’
The Kommandant gave a quick nod. ‘The amount of valuables we’ve received has risen significantly. This is Officer Meyer. He’s been assigned to assist you.’
She looked at the taller man at the Kommandant’s side and smiled in simple reflex. Immediately she felt ashamed. In that instant of introduction, she had been transported back to her life before war, where manners and smiles were commonplace. She had dropped her guard; lost her concentration. Officer Meyer didn’t return her smile. His hair was fair and pushed to one side at the front, like the wing of a gull. He was young, but an ageing v-shaped frown sat between his blue-grey eyes. He wore a look of resignation about him, as if working alongside her wasn’t his idea of a substantial enough contribution for the German war effort. She blinked when he suddenly bowed his head and brought his heels together. Something jangled in the worn leather bag he was holding.
‘I have a busy morning, so I will leave Officer Meyer to show you where you will both be working for the time being. Good morning, Madame Guillon.’
Matilde watched the Kommandant leave her office. His footsteps receded down the corridor, leaving an uncomfortable silence hanging in the air.
‘Well…’ began Matilde, trying to make an effort at polite conversation. Ingrained good manners were a difficult habit to break.
Officer Meyer interrupted her. ‘This way.’ He turned and left the room.
She hurried to catch up with him as he marched down the corridor in the opposite direction to the Kommandant. On reaching a staircase, he shoved the leather bag beneath his arm and took a crumpled packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, removed one and lit it. Matilde followed him downstairs. Her body was turned slightly to one side because her restrictive brown pencil skirt was making movement difficult on the steps. She held on to the handrail, sliding her fingers down the smooth wood and praying he wouldn’t look back at her because the hem of her tight skirt was riding above her knees as she descended. She inhaled the bitter smoke left in the officer’s wake. Three floors below, he paused and waited for her to catch up. She saw him pinch a speck of tobacco from his tongue with his thumb and forefinger before sucking once more on his cigarette’s diminishing length.
Despite working at the museum for over a month, Matilde still felt out of her depth. It wasn’t that she couldn’t organize an inventory, but surely she was expected to understand what she was recording. Apart from the obvious red rubies and blue sapphires, she couldn’t recognize one cut stone from another. Her mornings were spent sifting through jewelry: rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings and watches. She made use of a measuring gauge, a Zeiss Ikon camera and a book filled with photographs of gems and precious stones for ease of identification. Inevitably she would come across a stone she couldn’t find pictured on any page. These pieces were placed inside a velveteen bag that was collected daily; she had no idea where they were destined. Presumably to be examined by a more qualified eye. It didn’t stop her puzzling over where they’d come from, especially when she prized open lockets with a fingernail to reveal sepia photographs of family members. Perhaps their owners had sold them in order to feed their families.
Every afternoon she would type up the inventory that she had scribbled on sheets of paper and at the end of each day, Gertrude Loup would collect these typed lists. Occasionally Matilde would make her wait in front of her desk, as she herself had been made to wait on her first day. It amused her to see Gertrude’s jaw tighten with annoyance, her lips pursing and stretching as if she was sucking sherbet.
At the bottom of the staircase, two guards opened double doors and stood to attention, arms extended and palms straight. ‘Heil Hitler.’ They spoke in unison. Officer Meyer responded. She prayed that she wouldn’t be spending too much time with this ill-disposed German. He marched ahead, lithe and square-shouldered. His uniform fit him well and was pressed sharply, with just a frown of wrinkles puckered behind the knees of his trousers, disclosing the fact that he’d been sitting earlier.
They walked along a corridor lined with empty display cases and shelves covered in layers of dust. The walls were studded with oblong smudges of accumulated grime; ghosts of missing paintings. Eventually the passage widened into a foyer where more armed soldiers stood at intervals around the tiled space. Officer Meyer walked towards a solid mahogany desk, behind which sat a double-chinned soldier lost in his own cloud of tobacco smoke. The walrus of a soldier coughed and the two men exchanged a few sentences in German.
Officer Meyer turned and beckoned to her. She followed him to a wide, metal door. Two armed men moved aside as he removed the bag from beneath his arm and retrieved a ring of keys from inside. He inserted one in the keyhole and turned it. There was a loud click. He pushed open the door and walked inside, turning to look at her by way of asking her to follow. She stepped through the doorway. An aroma of beeswax, old books and damp material hung in the air as her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. Officer Meyer’s footsteps echoed with each stride, leading her to believe that this was a large room, but when he pressed several switches and light flooded the space, Matilde caught her breath. The room was vast. It was even bigger than Monsieur Lombard’s main saleroom at the auction house. It was two stories high and as wide the Vue du Jardin where she lived. Makeshift shelving and storage racks had been erected in long rows, each one laden with objects.
‘What is this place?’ she asked.
The German spread his arms wide. ‘This is one of many storage facilities ordered by the Führer.’
‘One of many?’ She took a few steps further, stopping at an ornate table with barley twist legs. A huge swastika flag had been draped over its surface, but much of its colour was hidden beneath a pile of glistening valuables: gold fountain pens, silver cutlery, goblets, watches, picture frames, candlesticks and oddly, spectacles. She turned to the German. ‘Where has all this come from?’
He gave her a look that she couldn’t decipher.
‘Your job is to log everything, not ask questions.’
‘Everything? All of it?’
‘Are we keeping you from something more important, Madame Guillon?’
Matilde picked at a cuticle with a fingernail and shook her head. ‘Of course not. I just didn’t imagine the scale of the job.’
He began walking towards one side of the room. ‘This way.’
Matilde hugged her arms against the chill and followed him. She could hear grit scrape beneath his soles. He stopped in front of different sized boxes, each draped with thick sacking. He pulled a length of hessian away with a flourish, as if wielding a bullfighter’s cloak. They weren’t boxes. They were paintings stacked against each other. Some had ornate frames of polished wood or feathered with gold leaf. Others were frameless, paint exposed on naked canvas.
Wherever would she begin?

Later that day, Matilde had been ordered to leave work early due to a last minute visit by a high-ranking member of the Gestapo. She supposed they didn’t want the possibility of a Parisian eavesdropping on their secret plans; and that was fine by her. She’d much rather escape the claustrophobic atmosphere of the museum’s basement and the hostile eyes of Herr Meyer.
Outside the sky was the colour of watered-down milk and a breeze carried scents of woodsmoke and rotting leaves. Before the war Matilde had loved autumn with its glow of streetlights reflecting on rain-drenched boulevards and the promise of Christmas; but now Paris appeared insipid and dirty. Windows wore a coat of neglect and paintwork was dulled with grime. Even the railings of the Tuileries reminded her of ribs instead of ornate metalwork. Perhaps this time next year the war would be over. Maybe festive lights would illuminate the avenues with colour once again.
Matilde wrapped her coat tightly around her body and hurried home with thoughts of Xavier and hot onion soup cheering her mood. But as she approached the entrance to the Vue du Jardin, she slowed her pace. Across the road, saw a French gendarme salute a German officer with submissive servility. Stiff and mechanical - already infused with German traits. It hadn’t taken that Frenchman long to surrender. With her next breath, a creeping realization made her stop and clutch a railing. Who was she to condemn this French policeman? Didn’t she work for the Germans? She was as bad as him. Yes, it was against her will, but she was still collaborating. France must fight back. She would fight back. If everyone relied on each other to retaliate, nothing would change. France would willingly succumb to the enemy, one person at a time. She vowed to support Xavier more actively from now on.
A shout. Her head shot up. Sharp, guttural commands were being barked nearby. The sound of an engine grew louder. She pressed her back against the railings. A truck sped past and braked sharply outside the entrance door to the building where she lived. Raised voices echoed inside the doorway. Matilde’s breath came in gasps and she could feel her heart thumping as she pressed her knuckles to her lips. The French policeman and the German officer ran across the road towards the noise. So, their meeting hadn’t been a coincidence; they were working alongside each other. She stayed where she was, partly hidden behind a large evergreen shrub and skeletal branches of an arched tree that hung over the metal fencing. What was happening inside the Vue du Jardin? Had someone run inside the building to hide and had been discovered?
She watched wide-eyed as several Germans scuffled with a man. They’d found who they were looking for. The man was hunched forwards. He stumbled despite being grasped by uniformed men. They dragged him to his feet. Blood covered his shirt. The French policeman opened the back door to the truck. Traitor! The prisoner gave one final attempt to retaliate and as he did so, he raised his head.
Xavier!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Love Stories Awards' Ceremony


I doubt if there’s a writer anywhere who hasn’t at one time or another been confronted with the question, Do I continue to write or do I call it a day? Many give up on their dreams, knocked either by seemingly endless polite rejections or because their submissions have been met by silence. For others, it's not just a matter of becoming published. For others, like myself, writing is a passion that we can't live without.

I keep writing because I simply must. There's always an unwritten story in my head, some fragment of a sentence urging me to set it down on paper or a character nagging me until I type his/her point of view on my computer screen. I love creating fiction and I'm drawn to my computer almost as if I'm under a spell. Like all writers, I've had darker moments of self-doubt and wonder if I'm good enough. But despite the fear persisting, I'm occasionally reminded by others, that I am a good writer. I've won writing competitions, had stories published in magazines and last month was shortlisted for Love Stories 15, New Talent award.

On Wednesday 18th November, I travelled to London to attend the ceremony. It was held at Jewell Piccadilly, a chandelier-strewn cocktail bar in the centre of the city. It was lovely to meet fellow Romantic Novelist Association's New Writers' Scheme members and hear about their works in progress. Prosecco flowed and cupcakes decorated the tables. I met authors I'd read about online and was proud to be part of such an encouraging and positive event. I didn't win my category, but still feel extremely proud to have been chosen nationally as one of a handful of nominees.

The first chapter of my shortlisted novel, All Is Fair. (Unfortunately Blogger.com doesn't allow for correct layout).

All Is Fair


1.
The air was thick and still, with nothing moving in the valley except the flow of the river. A chalk-smudge moon sat in the early morning sky and somewhere in the valley a dog barked, its sound travelling far in the stillness. Arlette Blaise was leading a caramel-coloured beast through the farmyard, scattering a cluster of chickens as she guided the cow by a rope at arm’s length in order to avoid its horns. Its bulk swayed and slewed with each step and its hooves made a rhythmical choff-choff sound as they disturbed the parched ground.
Arlette lifted her head and listened. Someone was calling her name.
She shouted back. ‘Par ici!’
Her best friend, Francine, was running up the hill, her clogs scuffing the dust and her long hair swinging from side to side.
‘Qu’est-ce qui se passe?’ asked Arlette.
Francine reached the summit and hung onto Arlette’s shoulders. She leant forwards trying to catch her breath, her face maroon as the beet that grew in their vegetable garden. ‘C’est Pétain!’
Arlette felt a chill run down her back. The French leader had been a topic of conversation as recently as yesterday’s birthday gathering. Neither of their fathers had hidden their disparagement of the premier of their country.
‘What about him?’
‘He’s abandoned Paris to the Germans.’
Arlette gave a high-pitched laugh. ‘Don’t be silly.’
‘It’s true. Maman heard it on the wireless.’
‘But why?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Surely he wouldn’t give in? No one gives away part of their country as if it were a basket of surplus apples.’ Arlette looked across the valley. Her eyes scanned the landscape, half expecting to see a line of German soldiers marching across its fields. The war. That vague far off entity that was spoken of in hushed tones. That destructive predator roaring in the north was stealthily creeping closer.
‘Surely they won’t come to Montverre?’
‘I hope not. Can you imagine?’
‘I need to speak with father,’ she said, gripping Francine’s hand and pulling her towards the farmyard.
The girls hurried towards the huge stone barn. They ran through the yard, dispersing the reassembled chickens. Arlette heard her father curse. Inside the vast structure, the interior was striped with sunlight that streamed in through gaps in the wooden boards in the eaves. It smelt of pungent manure that stung the back of her nose. Her father, Henri, raked his hands through his thick greying hair and noticed the girls standing in the entrance.
‘Ma pêche!’ he said quietly, beckoning to Arlette.
He’d called her his peach since she was a baby, on account of the velvety cheeks she had been born with. She leant into his chest and nestled just below his shoulder, his shirt infused with laundry soap, tobacco and fresh sweat. She looked up at him.
‘What does it mean, father?’
‘I’m not sure, but we’ll carry on as normal and work hard to bring in the harvest. We’re a long way from Paris and hopefully we won’t be too affected by the armistice. I’m sure we’ll be left alone to get on with our work.’
He tried to sound matter-of-fact but Arlette sensed a change in his voice. She heard a faltering that hadn’t been present before.
‘Where’s Gilbert?’ asked Francine, trying to sound nonchalant.
It was unspoken knowledge that Francine had become sweet on Arlette’s younger brother this past year.
‘He went inside for bread and goats’ cheese,’ said Henri, loosening his embrace on his daughter. ‘Go and tell him to hurry up. We won’t let the Germans disrupt our lives.’
She nodded. If her father wanted to pretend that everything was fine, then she would reciprocate. She walked out of the barn in step with Francine and heard the hushed baritone voices of their fathers’ conversation resume.
Gilbert didn’t move when Arlette walked into the kitchen. He was leaning back in their father’s armchair with his feet resting on a stool, chewing the remnants of his sandwich. He was tall and broad, with muscles developed through hard graft after years working on the farm. As soon as Francine entered, he sat up and straightened his hair.
So, thought Arlette. Francine’s infatuation wasn’t one-sided.
‘Hi Francine,’ muttered Gilbert. He wiped crumbs from his lips.
She smiled and lifted a hand in greeting, then stared at her feet in embarrassment.
Arlette found this unaccustomed shyness between her brother and her best friend very confusing. How was it possible that despite spending sultry summers and bitter winters together since they were children, they suddenly found it more difficult to communicate despite growing fonder of each other?
‘Father says to hurry up,’ said Arlette.
She looked at her brother’s dishevelled hair, scattered whiskers and large questioning fern-green eyes, a colour that they’d both inherited from their late mother. No, she couldn’t tell him of Pétain’s cowardice. Her own bravery had escaped her for the moment. She’d leave it to her father.

The first Sunday in September arrived, with the countryside adorned with pearls of dew and a low mist. The late summer heat and ripened fruit mingled together to fill the air with a honeyed fragrance. Arlette and her brother cycled into the yard having returned from Grande Masse at Saint Pierre’s church. Their father hadn’t been to a service since the death of their mother but had never tried to dissuade his children from attending.
Having leant their bikes against the barn, Arlette waved to her father who was walking towards them through the wheat field behind the farmhouse. His eyes were shadowed beneath his hat but he smiled and strode out of the golden field, cupping his right hand in front of him.
‘We’re all set for tomorrow,’ said Henri, rubbing the wheat heads between his palms and blowing the chaff away. He offered his children a kernel each.
‘It’s ready,’ said Gilbert, tasting it. ‘Very dry.’
Arlette bit into hers, cracking it between her teeth. She knew that if it wasn’t bone dry the harvest was likely to rot.
‘We start harvesting first thing tomorrow and this year is more important than ever due to the shortages,’ said Henri. ‘I’ve spoken to Thierry and Bruno and they’re both willing to help. Monique and Francine are coming too. I want you to sharpen the scythes today, Gilbert, because we have no choice but to harvest the old way.’
Due to fuel shortages, the tractor was out of use along with their mechanised conveyor belt that had been used in previous years for transferring the wheat stoops onto their largest cart. Their neighbour, Thierry, owned a small pig farm at the bottom of the hill. Twice a year they would swap a carcass of beef for a carcass of pork and were always willing to lend a hand if one was needed.
‘Choose two chickens for the pot today, ma pêche. We’ll eat a large dinner to prepare for the cutting and we’ll make extra to feed everyone tomorrow. Let’s pray for good weather.’

Monday morning dawned above the drooping golden heads of wheat. The swaying field sounded as if it was whispering in anticipation of the harvest. The air held humid warmth and butterflies and bees flitted indecisively from flower to flower in the garden.
Inside the farmhouse, the small group of neighbours huddled around the oven that Arlette had lit before dawn to take the early morning chill out of the kitchen. The logs crackled and the friends hugged their cups of coffee, discussing plans for the day.
Henri removed his cap and scratched his head. ‘Gilbert and I will be cutting the wheat starting at the top end of the field closest to the brook. I want everyone to stay well back from the scythes. Bruno and Thierry, you’ll be gathering the wheat into bundles. Ladies, your job is to tie them and stand them into stoops to dry. It looks as if it’s going to be another hot day, so Arlette and Francine, can you bring jugs of water and apples with you?’
Everyone nodded.
Henri shuffled and rubbed his stubbled chin. ‘I just want to say thank you. We couldn’t have managed this without your help now that the tractor and binder can’t be used this year. We have a tough couple of days ahead of us, but just think of Marshal Pétain and Hitler when you’re chopping and binding, and we’ll soon get it finished!’
Everyone laughed as they left the kitchen and crossed the farmyard. They pushed their way through the metre-high wheat field, their thighs shushing against the stalks with each step they took. The sun was now above the horizon, already warming their skin and dampening their backs. The growing heat had also stirred insects that flew and jumped, causing the friends to blow, bat and spit as they made their way to the far corner of the field. Once there, the men peeled off layers of clothing. The refreshments were placed in the shade of a tree and covered with rectangles of muslin cloth weighted at each corner by glass beads. Arlette noticed Francine watching Gilbert as he hoisted his jacket above his head, momentarily revealing his taut stomach. Her brother glanced back at Francine, making her blush. He threw his jacket beneath the tree.
Then the harvesting began. Henri and Gilbert started the process, walking steadily six feet apart while swinging their scythes rhythmically from left to right. The stalks collapsed, falling to the ground to be walked over by father and son as they continued forwards. Bruno and Thierry followed a short distance behind. They crouched to collect the fallen wheat and assemble them into untidy piles. The girls and Francine’s mother fell into step at the rear, scooping the bundles into huggable diameters and tying them with loose stray stalks. These were then stood up in bunches of ten, leant against each other resembling tepees and left to dry in the sun.
This continued for over an hour until the group had walked down the length of the field and back up again, returning close to their starting point. They stopped to stretch, groan and reach for a drink of water. Arlette sat beside Francine and Gilbert, their three noses hidden inside their cups. They emptied every drop before Gilbert laid back, his chest rising and falling with each breath. He studied his hands.
‘I’ve got blisters already,’ he said.
‘You have girl’s hands,’ laughed Thierry, examining his own hard calloused palms. ‘These are what you call working hands, lad.’ He lifted them to show the group, causing Henri and Bruno to mock and compare areas of hardened skin.
‘Can I see?’ Francine asked Gilbert.
Arlette watched her friend take Gilbert’s hand, running her forefinger gently over his blisters. She saw her brother swallow, his throat constricting. His gaze fell on Francine’s hands holding his own. Arlette felt like she was intruding on an intimate moment, so reached for an apple and knife. A spiral of apple skin looped and fell like a pink ribbon onto her knees. She turned to speak to Francine’s mother.
‘I put a chicken casserole in the oven. The heat of this morning’s embers should keep it warm.’
‘Ooh, we’ll be ready for that my dear,’ said Monique. ‘I’m sure your mother is looking down from heaven and feeling very proud of you.’
After five minutes Henri stood up and batted the dust from his trousers. He spat on one palm before rubbing his hands together and reaching for his scythe. Everyone took this as an unspoken sign their break was over. Arlette noted that Gilbert stood up first and offered his hand to help Francine. How wonderful it would be if her best friend were to become her sister-in-law.

Two days later, the wheat field was cut and an exhausted and dishevelled group left the field. They trudged back to the kitchen where Arlette had spent the last hour preparing a meal of rabbit, potatoes and the last of the runner beans. Dinner was to be followed by plump blackberries that she had hand picked and which had left her fingertips stained indigo. She could hear their voices getting louder and crossed the yard to greet them, hugging her father and walking beside him towards the well.
‘Food’s nearly ready.’
‘You’re a good girl,’ said Henri, kissing her forehead. ‘First we need to wash the dust off our hands.’
Arlette heard her brother curse under his breath. She turned to see what he was looking at. Soldiers. The melice had returned.
An open-topped truck had turned into the farmyard and stopped in front of the assembled group. Two uniformed men wearing blue berets climbed out, their buttons catching the sunlight. They moved to the front of their vehicle.
‘Whose farm is this?’ the older of the two demanded.
Henri lifted an arm.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Henri Blaise.’
‘Papers.’ The melice officer clicked his fingers impatiently.
‘They were checked recently.’
‘I’m checking them again.’
‘They’re inside,’ answered Henri.
‘Fetch them,’ he barked. ‘Your papers should be on you at all times.’ He scanned the gathered group of neighbours, his lips curled in distaste.
Arlette watched the younger soldier write something down on his clipboard. Her father returned from the kitchen carrying his paperwork. It was snatched from his hands when he offered them. The French policeman barely looked at them.
‘We’re taking your wheat. German soldiers in the north are short of food and we’re starting a process of redistribution.’
Arlette noticed her father’s distraught face. This harvest would have sustained the family throughout the coming winter and also earned them a little money. Now it was to be taken from them to feed the enemy. The future suddenly seemed like a darker place.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Broken Bones And Brackets - A Day In My Life



My husband had an accident last week. He's fine. (well, as fine as a man in pain can be.) He could have snapped his humerus and cracked two ribs while sky-diving, climbing Everest or taking part in a parkour challenge.
Actually, he fell off a ladder. Not very glamorous I know, but nonetheless, I'm informed it's just as painful.

Paul's x-ray

He came home from hospital clutching this impressive x-ray, having been told by the orthopaedic surgeon that he would leave the fracture a week to see what happens! I was intrigued. What might happen? I find myself watching my husband's arm and waiting for some miraculous transformation to take place. Maybe a new arm will sprout; after all, a salamander is capable of regrowing limbs. (I'm not suggesting my husband looks like a lizard, but seeing him sprawled along the settee, I can glimpse a few similarities.) Maybe the bones will realign themselves and fuse back together perfectly (although I'm not holding my breath).

Broken arm aside, I then took my two dogs for a walk on the village green because due to the hospital visit, they'd missed their morning stroll. Brook found a six foot branch for me to play fetch with. I refused, so she thwacked me on the ankles with this tree limb every time she ran past. She doesn't understand that mass x collision = bruises.

I also passed Marigold in the field. She was giving birth while on all fours. (I hasten to add that Marigold isn't the publican's wife.) She's a cow. (again, I don't mean the publican's wife is...) Moving on.

The calves hooves were protruding, so I hung about to see what would happen. (A bit like the orthopaedic surgeon's take on life.) Meanwhile a handful of hens had decided to make an entrance (not from the cow) and proceeded to walk in a hen-like manner, onto the field. Luckily I had my Brittany spaniel on a lead because she's the Hannibal Lecter of dogs when it comes to small creatures. My Springer is a wimp. I'm sure she wouldn't mind me calling her that because...well, she's too much of a wimp to disagree with me. She's frightened of the wind. She's frightened of snails. She's frightened of her shadow. Little did I know that my wimp had "grown a pair" (as my daughter so succinctly put it when I returned home). She chased these hens (*sigh* not my daughter), making them squawk and flap while the cow pushed and groaned. I was running around in wellies that were a size too big while trying to catch my Springer. This farce ended with two blushing hens with their butts on show, a dog with a mouthful of feathers and a labouring cow who was now stressed and anxious.

The following day I found a safely-delivered calf.

But we can all learn a lesson from this. That is, where to place your punctuation when using brackets! (Neatly done, if I do say so myself.)

Parentheses are words enclosed in brackets, that clarify information given in a sentence.

Example 1: My spaniel (although usually a wimp), chased the hens. In most cases, punctuation isn't used directly before the opening bracket of a sentence, they are placed after the closing bracket.

Example 2: The orthopaedic surgeon decided to leave Paul's arm broken (for over a week). Because the parenthesis ends the sentence, the full stop is placed after the bracket.

Example 3: The hens scrambled back in to the coop to hide their embarrassment. (and I ran home to hide mine.) As the parenthesis is an entire sentence, the full stop is placed inside the brackets. Even though the parenthetical element is a complete sentence, capital letters aren't used at the beginning or a full stop at the end because the element is placed within another complete sentence.