12,000 miles too far

Living on the other side of the world definitely has it’s low points and not being at the burial of my Grandmother’s ashes in Dorset today is one of them.

My sister texted me earlier. She’s in the car on the motorway, heading to the cemetery now. My Dad is driving. My lanky brother probably lounging on the back seat, choosing the music. It’s pissing it down, apparently. I texted back and asked her to throw a pebble into the sea, drink a Coke from the bottle with a straw and find a cow pat to stand in – for me. I know they’ll be playing the same game our parents used to distract us on the long journey down there as kids: first person to see the sea …

I wrote down a few childhood memories of times spent at my Grandmother’s house in Dorset, for the funeral. It feels good to remember the happy times, amongst the sadness. I only wish I could be there today to stand beside my Dad, brother and sister as they bury Gran in her final resting place. Some days 12,000 miles really is too far from home.

When I was a young girl my Grandmother lived at H. House in Chiddeock.

It was a house that fired a child’s imagination. Nestled at the top of a muddy single-track lane, perched on the side of a hill. You couldn’t see the sea from there, but I used to lie in bed imagining I could hear it, amidst the rustle of Granny’s starched white bed linen.

It was big. Full of clocks that ticked and chimed like living creatures. It smelt of furniture polish, and roast meals, and prize-winning flowers picked from the garden.

Breakfast was always in the dining room. White tablecloths and the best polished silver. Mini packets of cereal to squabble over. Who gets the top of the milk today? Toast aligned in the rack, homemade marmalade dolloped with the best jam spoons, and cups to rattle in their saucers. Gran always liked to do things properly – every morning felt like a child’s fairytale tea party.

I remember evening board games in the back drawing room – Granny’s ivory mah-jong set, musty with age and darting silverfish; the wooden solitaire block that could amuse me for hours; pick-up sticks and cards bent with age and handling.

Upstairs – spooky. A dark landing, heavy wooden furniture creaking and groaning as the house settled in for the evening. But then, at the end of a long corridor lay a mysterious, colourful room. Granny’s bedroom, with its enormous bed and bobbly blue bedspread. And a pink bathroom separated by a hanging waterfall of emerald green beads – exotic and wonderful to wrap yourself in. Coloured crystal perfume bottles and a box with endless jewels and strings of pearls – an eight-year-old’s treasure trove.

Then outside we went, for croquet on the sprawling lawn or hide and seek among the orchard trees at the back of the house; Easter egg hunts among the flower beds; wheelbarrow races and dam building in the stream that ran through the jungle of bamboo canes – damp earth smells, dark and mysterious. A greenhouse that churned out fresh tomatoes year on year, turned into jars of Gran’s delicious green-tomato chutney. My sister and I cantering madly over high-jumps built from garden canes and flower pots, our baby brother following at a distance.

But not always the house, or the gardens. Sometimes a treacherous summer walk, down the laneways, amidst the tourist traffic, to Seatown. Past the house with fossils and shells set into the concrete begging ‘touch me’. Wellington boots clumping rhythmically on tarmac until we reached the sea. Pebbles to collect. Coke from the bottle drunk with a straw and a packet of crisps. ‘Don’t ruin your lunch!’

My grandmother’s house was a place of secrets, of treasure; a box of delights, waiting to be re-opened at every visit. A place of hugs, of laughter, of warm cooking smells. A place where, even as the clocks ticked on, for a few days here and there time stood still. And we were a family.

Those days are gone now. And we are grown. My brother no longer a baby but a tall man of 32. My sister a mum to three beautiful children. My own babies growing and so many of us living on the other side of the world now. And Gran is gone too. At the ripe old age of ninety-six she went peacefully, a painless death, with her son and grandson nearby, surrounded by photos and flowers and the tears of the nurses who were touched by her courageous spirit in the six short weeks they knew her.

My Gran is nowhere now, and yet she is everywhere. She is in the memories of those days spent at that beautiful house, she is in the blue-grey of my father’s eyes, she is in the careful hands of my sister as she kneads, mixes and bakes, she is in my brother’s gentle manner, and the independent spirit of her great grandchildren as they learn and grow and thrive. And I think she is here now too, in these words that I have written, and in your faces, her friends and family, gathered to celebrate her life.

My grandmother was a kind-hearted woman, who showed us generosity and dignity and love … and how to bake the perfect cheesecake … and without whom, none us would be here today.

We love you and miss you Gran.

A dream-come-true moment

On Saturday morning I woke up to the most fabulous surprise: my novel, on the front of The Bookseller – the UK book trade’s industry magazine.

Kate Mills, my Editor at Orion, oh-so-casually emailed through these images from Friday’s issue and completely blew me away. I haven’t stopped smiling since.

For a former book marketer this is, quite simply, dream come true stuff. Orion, you rock!

I am being haunted by a book

I finished Julie Myerson’s Then over two weeks ago and it just won’t leave me alone. It creeps up on me in quiet moments, its final, devastating scenes crashing into my head at the strangest times.

It is a serious piece of writing. Julie Myerson is a serious writer, and I raced through it in less than twenty-four hours. I’m just not sure if I actually enjoyed it. What it did do was leave me blubbering like a mad woman on the sofa, my heart in bits. Then moved me more than anything I’ve read for a very long time.

I’m a girl who likes a happy ending … or at least a glimmer of one, so I’ve been searching for something redemptive, something good to take from the experience of reading Then. What I have come to realise is that this is a book that has made me grab my family that little bit closer; it’s a book that has made me grateful for the comparative sanity of our world. Yes, we live on a pretty fucked-up planet, but compared to the landscape Julie Myerson paints, this is truly Disney Land. What lingers though, and scares me the most, is the portrait she paints of the dark places we can go to in our own minds, when everything else falls apart.

My advice? Don’t read it if you like books with happy endings. Do read it if you want to cry ugly, messy tears like a wild thing. Then by Julie Myerson is quite something.

Blue Valentine

Movies often inspire me, but the end credits, not so much. Then I watched Blue Valentine. Described as ‘a last look at what was and what will not be’, these are, quite possibly, the most beautiful movie credits ever made. And yes, it does help that Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are so easy on the eye.

The pile of books beside the bed

Writing’s a funny thing. Sometimes I’m so into it I don’t want to be distracted (or intimidated) by reading someone else’s work. Other times I find I’m practically eating my way through books – writing whenever I can in the day and then immersing myself in other people’s words at night.

I have to say, whichever state I’m in, there’s always something very reassuring about having a teetering pile of books beside the bed, just waiting to be enjoyed. My pile is looking particularly enticing at the moment. I’m about to start the new Nicci French, very kindly sent to me by a friend in London, but I can’t wait to dive into the rest. Where do I go after Blue Monday? Any suggestions gratefully received.

A wondrous thing

Have I shared a picture of my first book proof of Secrets of the Tides yet? It is a wondrous thing. I like to look at it. A lot.

A while ago, when I worked in publishing, I was responsible for producing vast reams of book proofs. It was always exciting, getting that first box in the office, ripping open the carton and lifting out the very first proof of a new book. There were worries too: had the colours come out right? did the text flow properly? was there a massive typo on the front cover? All those proofs, but I don’t think I every fully realised how an author might feel, seeing their words in book format, for the very first time. Well, I can tell you now, from the other side of the fence, it is a complete thrill.

I love my proof. It has my name on the front. It has a spine. It is covered in nice quotes from the people who work at Orion. And it has a letter from Kate Mills, my Editor, on the inside front page which explains why she felt compelled to buy Secrets. They tell me they are doing a second run of book proofs, when the cover has been finalised, which is lovely too, but I know that for me, there will never again be a proof as gorgeous as this first one that arrived in the post.

I caught my babysitter reading it the other day. She looked kind of guilty that I’d found her with it, but I didn’t mind, particularly when she asked if she could borrow it. She said she’d been grabbed from page one and that was – of course – enough to put a massive smile on my face for the rest of the day. What would-be writer wouldn’t want to hear that?

Only time will tell if others enjoy reading Secrets, but it’s nice to have all those amazing Orion quotes on the cover. In darker moments, when I feel like book 2 just isn’t going to work, I read them and feel my confidence return. So thank you, Orion. Thank you for the loveliest proof a debut author could ask for.