Welcome, Jackie, please tell us a little about yourself
Raised in smoky, post-war Walthamstow, mostly in brick terraces, prefabs and flats, I have always loved escaping to fresh air and trees and, as soon as I could, moved to Essex. Now, in retirement, my husband, Peter, and I can watch ducklings and moorhens on Buckhurst Hill’s village pond, from our front windows, I couldn’t be happier. To cap it all we have the freedom of Epping Forest just a few hundred yards down the road. Perfect. In spring and summer I spend half my time working an allotment with a friend; in autumn and winter and on rainy days, I cosy up indoors to do my writing. In between times, I paint, I run a Creative Writing group and Bookclub for the local U3A, and attend other art-based groups, a Scrabble Group and indulge in hilarious Parlour games with my friends. Before lockdown, I helped out at a Memory Cafe for people with Dementia. I consider myself blessed in my son and daughter, my daughter-in-law and in my four grandchildren who spice up our lives and keep us on our toes.
When did you start writing?
I have always loved make-believe. As a child I spent too much time daydreaming or immersed in a book for my own good, or so they told me. I loved play-acting, adored cinema and theatre and knew I would write stories eventually. But teaching put paid to that idea. It was only when I could see an end in sight, in the early 1990s, that I actually swapped my pottery kiln for a word processor and began writing short stories. Honno took one for an anthology they were compiling, and the rest – you’ve guessed it – is history.
What genre do you write in and why? I’d written five novels before I decided, as an experiment, to have a go at crime, mainly because I thought I would reach a wider audience. I didn’t read crime myself, only seen police procedurals on TV which I found ‘samey’ and, for the most part, predictable. What did attract me, though, was historical research: the Victorian era and early policing. How did they solve crimes before fingerprinting and DNA? If I could combine all that with art, I’d be happy. So I invented a police artist named Archie Price, born in Wales but painting and working in Walthamstow, a town I know very well.
How important is location in your novels?
I have set many of my books in old Walthamstow, as I grew up there. I knew my way around the streets, the market, the shops, schools,the park, the railway station. I knew the Palace theatre watched pantomime and music hall there. I even danced the Highland Fling on its stage when our ballet class put on a show. I knew the journey to and from London, by train and bus, and all the stops along the way. I knew the walk down to the river, the marshes, the pubs and bridges. Loving a place, it’s easy to set a story there, imagine your protagonists walking around, inhabiting the place, having adventures.The place, and the time, of course, have such an influence on who they are and the way they think, react.
Jackie’s painting of the Buckhurst Hill village pond outside her front window.
In all my books I need to have been to the places I write about, so that I can look around, recognise, touch, taste the air, get the atmosphere, put myself there and, through me, my characters.
Who is your favourite (non Honno) author? Before she wrote Handmaid’s Tale I would have said Margaret Atwood. Now, I have to return to my first love, Thomas Hardy. My daughter is named Tamsin after his heroine in Return of the Native. My favourite live author Is Maggie Farrell. No one can break your heart as she can
. Where do you write? Anywhere in the house where I can find a quiet spot. Now that I have discovered I can write in Word on my iPad in bed and have it appear on my laptop downstairs, the world is my oyster.
Who is your favourite character in your books? Archie Price – my ideal man – flawed but well meaning and kind. Julia Margaret Cameron made a photograph of an enigmatic and mysterious man she called Iago. Those are his looks. He is not Shakespeare’s Iago, however. He does not have a disloyal bone in his body. He is rather like my husband, in fact.
What was your favourite bit of research? Any forensic Art – how an artist can build up the likeness of a villain from a witness’s description. How a face can be made for a skull, as in pmy latest novel Shades of Deception.But I also love researching the suffragettes for my current work in progress.
What do you like most about being published by Honno, an indie press rather than one of the big publishing houses?
My association with Honno began with their anthology, Luminous and Forlorn, which included my short story, Lovey Dovey Cats Eyes. I like that they are real people, who treat their authors as real people, rather than as a means to an end. They respect your wishes, offer sound advice and editing and pull out all the stops to provide a really good quality product you can be proud of.
My greatest support has come from the group of authors published by Honno. We have a Facebook group where we can chat and ask for help, information and generally boost moral when it’s needed. And we’ve met up in real life on many occasions. About three years ago I shared interviews with some of them. Since then there have been other women writers who have become Honno authors. So this is the new set of interviews and today I am withJo Verity.
Welcome,. Jo.Please tell us a little about yourself.
I live in North Cardiff with my husband of 53 years. We have two daughters – one lives in Bristol, one lives in London – and four grandchildren. Before retirement I worked as a medical graphic artist at the Dental Hospital in Cardiff. (I drew teeth!)
To date, I have had six novels published by Honno Welsh Women’s Press – the first in 2005, the most recent in 2018. I also write short stories, many of which have been published or broadcast.
When did you start writing?
I began writing in 1999. I was scheduled to spend a week in Budapest with an American friend but at the last minute Ruth pulled out. I was furious with her for letting me down. An avid reader all my life, I’d never written anything before but, for some reason, I decided to get it off my chest by writing a short story about an egocentric American sculptress who got her comeuppance. Within days I was hooked. Obsessed in fact. After about six months of short story writing, I began working on a novel – naively assuming that this was the natural progression. (I’ve since discovered they are very different animals.)
What genre do you write in and why?
Those first short stories were about ordinary people, everyday life and set firmly in the ‘now’. When I decided to have a stab at a novel, I stuck with that. I’ve always been drawn to ‘quiet’ novels in which characters face the same dilemmas most of us do. They give us a chance to rehearse how we might react were we in the same position. To examine our own attitudes, prejudices and weakness.
Genre? Amazon classifies my books as ‘contemporary urban fiction’ or ‘contemporary familyfiction’. I’m not sure whether that’s a genre or simply what’s left after you eliminate crime, fantasy, sci-fi, historical etc.
Who is your favourite (non Honno) author?
Anne Tyler. She has the knack of making the ordinary seem extraordinary. Her characters, flawed and unsure of themselves, linger around long after you’ve put the book down. I’ve just finished her latest novel (number 23!) – ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’. Once again, in her quiet, ruthless way, she hits every nail squarely on the head.
May I cheat and choose another? Elizabeth Strout. Strout covers the same territory but is perhaps a little tougher on her characters. If you haven’t read her, I suggest you start with ‘Olive Kitteridge’.
Where do you write?
I’ve concocted a writing cave at one end of the spare bedroom where I sit surrounded by writing paraphernalia – printer, scrap paper, pens, pin up board, etc. I work on a PC with a large screen. I find laptops uncomfortable to use – not good for posture or eyesight. When I’m away from my desk, I write by hand in a notebook. (It has to be a Pukka Pad and a black PaperMate Flexigrip. It is a well-known fact that all writers are stationery geeks.) I transfer what I’ve written to my machine as soon as I can, using this as an editing opportunity. And I’m rigorous about backing up my work.
Who is your favourite character in your books?
Mmm. That’s like asking a mother which child she most loves. I couldn’t possibly choose between my various protagonists.
Secondary characters can be more broad-brush and quirkier than those taking centre stagealthough they mustn’t be ‘cartoonish’. I have a soft spot for the eccentric old codgers Mrs Channing and Mr Zeal who appeared briefly, yet to great effect, in ‘Sweets from Morocco’. Children and teenagers are delightful to ‘work with’. They ask awkward questions, stir things up and make a nuisance of themselves. They are fun to write about and a useful way of eliciting information and forcing grownups to address tricky issues.
What was your favourite bit of research?
My stories are set in the ‘now’. I make them up as I go along. Consequently any research I do is on a ‘need to know’ basis. A character might recall what was in the charts when their first child was born or what the weather was like one particular Christmas. Small details evoke memories in the reader and make a fictitious character ‘real’. A quick Google and I have the song title or weather report. (Get it wrong, and a helpful reader will soon let me know!)
Having said that, I did send Gil Thomas (from ‘Left and Leaving’) back to his home in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. Thanks to Google Maps, I could ‘virtually’ wander around the town and surrounding area which gave me confidence to describe it. https://www.coffsharbour.nsw.gov.au gave me the local lowdown – right down to shops, café’s, train and bus services. Several globe-trotting acquaintances remarked that they didn’t know I’d been to Australia – so I think I got away with it.
What do you like most about being published by Honno, an indie press rather than one of the big publishing houses?
The informality and camaraderie of an indie publisher suits me and my way of working. I’ve been a Honno author for fifteen years and everyone I’ve worked with there has been approachable, supportive, flexible and available. I’m extremely blessed to have Caroline Oakley as my editor. She ‘gets’ what I’m trying to achieve and nudges me, firmly but sympathetically, in the right direction. I couldn’t bear to hand ‘my babies’ over to people whom I didn’t know, trust and consider to be friends.
So, Judith, you are the tireless champion of other authors. Let’s hear about you, for a change. How did Yorkshire lass come to be a Pembrokeshire author?
We found Pembrokeshire by accident. After we were married, and before children, we always holidayed for a week in July in Cornwall. But after seven years of marriage and with three children under three and our only mode of transport being an ancient van, we decided it was too far with a young family. So we thought we would go to Wales; not too difficult a journey from Yorkshire, we believed. I borrowed books on Wales from the library and, balancing our 8-month-old twins, one on each knee, I read as much as I could about the county of Pembrokeshire. With wonderful beaches it sounded just the place to take children for a holiday.
We booked a caravan and, when the big day came, packed the van to the hilt with everything the children would need, remembering only at the last minute, to throw a few clothes in for ourselves.
It took us ten hours. In 1978 there was no easy route from the North of England to West Wales. We meandered through small lanes, stopping for emergencies like much needed drinks, picnics and lavatory stops. The closer we were to our destination the slower we went; in the heat of the day the engine in our old van struggled; we needed to top up the radiator every hour or so. For the last fifty miles we became stuck in traffic jams. We got lost numerous times.
All this and three ever-increasingly fractious children.
We arrived at the caravan site in the middle of the night so were relieved to find the key in the door. The owner, a farmer, had given up and gone home.
The following morning I woke early. Leaving David in charge of our exhausted and still sleeping family, I crept out. The air was warm; a breeze barely moved the leaves on the trees around the field. Although the caravan was one of four in the farmer’s field, we were the only people there.
I walked along a small path. Within minutes I was facing the sea, glittering in the sun; dark rocks jutted out of the water surrounded by foaming waves. The horizon was a silvery line far in the distance. Faint voices from two small fishing boats carried on the air. The cliffs curved round in a natural cove. It was so quiet, so peaceful.
I fell in love with Pembrokeshire.
Within months we’d thrown caution, and our past lives, to the wind and moved into a half-built house in what was a field. It took us years to finish it but it’s been a labour of love.
How could anyone not fall in love with Pembrokeshire? But your books are mostly set up north. How important is location in your books?
For me it’s vitally important, because it sets the scene for where my characters live. |And I try to portray the locations as they would exist in a certain era. It takes a lot of research to make sure the details of both the place and the time are correct. Luckily I enjoy researching.
I always draw a map of the town or village so I can see the characters moving around, see what they see; experience what they experience. It’s the only way I can picture it.
Location was especially important for the trilogy. The first book, Pattern of Shadows, was inspired by my research into a disused cotton mill in Oldham, Lancashire and its history of being the first German POW camp in the country. Rather than the noise of the machinery, the colours of the cotton and cloth, the smell of oil, grease and the new material, I envisaged only vehicles coming and going, the sounds would be of men with a different language and dialect, no riot of colour, no tang of oil, grease, cotton fibres; just the reek of ‘living’ smells.
And the camp retains its importance throughout the trilogy after the war and into the sixties. It falls into ruin at the same time as the cotton industry is declining and the mill town where it is situated also deteriorates.
But, in the sequel, Changing Patterns and the last of the trilogy, Living in the Shadows, the characters are also in a small Welsh village; a complete contrast to the industrial town. And this disparity between the two locations is where the many layers of the human condition can be explored in order for me to create rounded characters that, hopefully, come to life on the page.
I hope that makes sense?
Perfect sense. Your first books, the Howarth stories, are a family saga. What appeals to you about that genre?
I love writing about the intricacies of relationships within families; it fascinate me. We live in such diverse situations and, a lot of the time; tend to take it all for granted. Being a family member, with the casual acceptance of one another that the circumstance brings, can bring the best and the worst out in all of us. So there is a wealth of human emotions to work with. It’s fascinating to write about that potential. And, of course, behind closed doors, anything can happen. So the family saga is a genre that can cross over into historical fiction and the crime, mystery and romantic genres.
Your latest, The Memory, is still family-based but quite different. What made you shift direction for that one? What inspired it?
It is new territory for me but the book is still set around a family unit so, from that point of view, I don’t think I strayed too far with The Memory. In the Haworth trilogy and the prequel, A Hundred Tiny Threads, (set against the background of the first World War, the Suffragettes and the Irish War of Independence), there is still an underlying theme of reactions to a situation. But the difference between those books and this one is that those characters, as well as reacting in a domestic setting, respond to a wider situation; their lives are affected by what is happening in the outside world. In The Memory it is only Irene Hargreaves, the protagonist that the reader learns about; mainly from the claustrophobic atmosphere she is living in presently, but also through her memories.
It’s a more contemporary book than the others and also it’s written in a different style. The book runs on two timelines: Irene’s life from the age of eight, after her sister is born and her grandmother comes to live with the family because her mother refuses to accept her second daughter, Rose, a Downs Syndrome child. That’s written in past tense. The second timeline, over the last twenty-four hours is written in the present tense and shows Irene’s life as the carer of her mother, who has dementia.
I don’t know that it was inspired by any one thing. The Memory actually began as a short story I wrote a long time ago, which just grew and, which, in turn, started from a journal that I’d kept from when I was carer for one of my relatives who had dementia. I read many articles on coping with the disease at the time, but writing how I felt then helped tremendously. Writing like that always has; it’s something I did through many years from being a child.
Another memory was of was a childhood friend of mine; a Down’s syndrome child, though I didn’t realise then. We would sit on the front doorstep of their house and I would read or chat; well, I would talk and he would smile and laugh. I didn’t think that it was odd that he never spoke. Thinking about it, I never even wondered why he wasn’t in school either. Anyway, one Monday after school, I went along the lane to their house and the front door was closed. I didn’t understand; one day he was there and the next gone. No one explained that he’d died. I‘m not sure I even understood what that meant anyway. So, I did what I usually did; I wrote about it; how I felt losing a friend. So, from finding the short story in a drawer I was clearing out, my memories, and remembering the journals, came The Memory.
What matters to you, apart from your writing?
Family and friends. At least the small family that David and I created. I suppose that sounds odd; perhaps even a little selfish to exclude any extended members of our families. But I’m being honest here. I wasn’t close to my parents for various reasons; reasons that partly underlined the decision to move so far away from Yorkshire. They weren’t bothered about their siblings, who we rarely saw, so I never really got to know any of them. Don’t misunderstand me; when any of them needed us we willingly did what we could. But moving away from where most of them live meant we were unable to rely on instant support; there was no childminding, no unexpected welcome visits. It made us more self-sufficient. So by family I do mean David and the children. And their children; our grandchildren. Whatever happens; however much changes, whatever life chucks at us, they will always matter to me.
And friends? Well,at my age (and I think this happens to most people as they get older), friends are fewer and become more important. And, at this stage, true friends tend to know you inside out; all the good bits and the not so good bits. And they still like you. I think that’s wonderful. And it works both ways!
How did you come to be a Honno author?
For many years, whilst writing books that stacked up in drawers, never to appear again, I was writing poetry, plays and short stories and entering creative writing competitions. I also used to look for notifications for submissions to anthologies. A friend told me about a call that had come from Honno. The remit was to write a story around the subjects of gardens and life. The title of the anthology, published in 2008, is Coming up Roses. My story is called Whose House is This? (I wrote a post about it here).
Shortly after the anthology was published I attended a workshop run by Honno and, in conversation with the editor, Caroline Oakley, I said that I had recently completed a manuscript. I think I should mention here that this book was the first I’d ever been truly excited about; even reluctant to consign it to the drawer with the others. Caroline told me to send it to her, which I did.
But, previously I’d sent the book to an agent. And this is where itall gets a bit messy, drawn out and tedious; so all I will say is that the agent wanted me to work with a commercial editor to change the genre from family saga to chick lit ( not that there is anything wrong with chick lit, it’s just not what I write.) So, after much discussion, the agent and I parted company and it was a great relief when the book was accepted by Honno as a family saga. That book became the first of the Haworth trilogy, Pattern of Shadows. The rest, as is often quoted, is history. I’ve been with Honno for over twelve years now and had five books published with them and another, The Heart Stone, to be released in 2021.
What do you value most about Honno?
Honno is my kind of publisher; small, independent, and led by strong women who know what kind of books they want to publish and don’t accept anything but the best that an author can produce. So the editing is hard, but fair, and leads to many discussions – and a few compromises on both sides. Because it is known to be a Welsh press it is sometimes assumed that all its authors will be Welsh as well. So, often, when I’ve appeared at events, people are surprised to hear my broad Northern English accent. The supposition is false; Honno’s aim as an inspiring, feminist, Welsh press is to provide opportunities for women writers. The only proviso is that they are either Welsh, are living in Wales or have a connection to the country – which actually covers a great many writers. I love their strapline -. “Great Women, Great Writing, Great Stories.” So it always gives me a thrill when the manuscript I’ve been toiling over for months (or years!) is accepted by them.
I live in the middle of Wales in a house that was derelict when we bought it 10 years ago. I’ve spent my life farming and then building – the last 20 years making oak windows and stairs and things.
When did you start writing?
When I was still farming and the children were half grown up, my husband was away working in India for a month and it was the busiest time of the farming year, pre-lambing. I was very run down and developed a boil on my leg which made tractor driving (and everything else) excruciating. Writing was what I started doing to take my mind off the pain and after years of hating whatever I wrote it suddenly started working for me. I’ve been spending far too much time on it ever since.
What genre do you write in and why?
I never know what to think about genre, especially as applied to my own work, but my most recent book, ‘Albi’, happened to be a historical novel. Mostly I write contemporary fiction about ordinary people leading quiet lives, wherever that may be and whatever genre that is.
How important is location in your novels?
Very. Having lived in the Sudan and in Ghana and spent several months in India – and now owning a house in Spain – I’ve had a lot of pleasure writing about other places. When the protagonist is an outsider, as Anne is in ‘In A Foreign Country’, that was fairly straightforward because I could show Ghana through her eyes. With ‘Albi’ it was much more challenging: the main character has lived all his short life in a Spanish village and sees the landscape differently as a result.
Who is your favourite (non Honno) author?
Has to be George Eliot, and the ending of ‘Middlemarch’ about the world going not so ill for you or I because of those ordinary people lying in their forgotten tombs…
Where do you write?
At my cramped desk in the study I share with my husband Nick. I get the window to the front with the pied flycatchers in the ash tree, he gets the window to the back and the green woodpeckers on the grassy bank. Mostly we don’t annoy one another too much.
Who is your favourite character in your books?
Albi. He’s so real to me that when I’m in our village in Spain I can feel him everywhere. That’s been an unexpected delight and I hope he’s still there when we at last get back after covid.
What was your favourite bit of research?
The hours I’ve spent in our Spanish house, which is full of the implements and utensils they were using 80 years ago (we possess three wooden ploughs), and listening and feeling for all those things that would have been the same in the 1930s. It’s a world that has changed a lot in the 20 years we’ve known the village, as the older generation quietly fades away, but the sheep bells still sound all round the village and the shepherds can still be heard calling them the same as they always did.
What do you like most about being published by Honno, an indie press rather than one of the big publishing houses.
The community of writers and the friendship that has come out of being published by Honno. Having the confidence that I’ll be taken seriously with the next book (though as with big publishing houses there’s no guarantee a book will be taken on). And going to the seaside whenever I go to talk to my editor.
And thank you Judith, fellow author, for allthe support!
I wrote Whose House is This? in answer to a call for submissions from Honno for short stories for their anthology, Coming up Roses . The story is that of a mother and daughter and the changes in their garden throughout the seasons running parallel to the changes in the mother’s illness; her dementia. Because time and a mother’s dementia has hidden a memory for many years in my latest book, The Memory,much in the same way that memories disappear in Whose House is This?, I was given permission from the publishers to reproduce the story here.
Coming up Roses: A collection of garden stories from Wales
Edited by Caroline Oakley “Sad, tense, funny, bizarre but best of all, original plots and a huge variety of themes show how creative writers can transform fruit and veg, flower borders and potting sheds to delve into our deepest fears and unrequited longings but also bring on the growth of new possibilities with each passing season.” Western Mail. http://bit.ly/2GlXuQ4
Whose House is This? by Judith Barrow I’ve given up trying to persuade Mum to stay indoors, so here we both are, huddled in a shed no bigger than a telephone box, our breath, white vapour, mingling in the coldest December day this year.I’ve wrapped her up as best I can: coat, blankets, woolly hat and gloves. The gloves are the most important; she will insist on trying to touch the shears and secateurs. I’ve cleaned, sharpened and oiled them and the shine of the blades fascinates her. ‘Just let me hold them,’ she says for the tenth time after I’ve put them safely out of her reach. ‘Not today, you’ll get oil on your coat.’ Her hat has fallen over one eye and she tilts her head upwards and glares crossly at me. I straighten it. ‘I think we’ve done enough in here for today.’ Ignoring the loud sigh that balloons her cheeks I add, ‘Let’s go in for a drink.’ Hands under her armpits, I haul her to her feet. The blankets drop to the floor. I kick them to one side; I’ll pick them up later. We shuffle out of the door. ‘Mind the step. And watch the ice on the path.’ ‘I can manage, I’m not a baby.’ ‘I know.’ Even so, I hold one hand under her elbow and my other arm around her shoulders. She seems so tiny. ‘How about we have a whiskey and hot water to warm us?’ We pick up pace towards the back door. Just before we go in, she stops. ‘Whose house is this?’ ‘It’s ours, Mum; we’ve been here thirty years.’ But she won‘t go in. Stubbornly she holds on to the frame with stiff arms. ‘This isn’t our door, our door is blue.’ ‘No, we had double glazing last summer. This is our new back door.’ She doesn’t speak. I wait, my hands on her waist. She turns, her arms dropping to her sides; the many layers she wears means that they are at an angle from her body as though she is gesturing in surprise. She looks around the garden.‘Whose house is this?’‘Ours.’I wait. It’s best too keep quiet when she’s in one of these moods.The birds are making short work of the seeds and bread we scattered earlier. The squirrel stares at us, still as a statue, hanging from the peanut holder. ‘I don’t like winter,’ she says. And then in one of her sudden changes of subject, ‘Do you remember your granddad’s allotment?’And, in a flash, I’m there. It’s a memory long forgotten. I don’t know why or where I’ve conjured it up from. Perhaps it’s the clouds, bruised with threatening rain or hail, just like that day so long ago, or it’s the blackbird scuttling around on the lawn. Anyway, there I am, after all this time.
Seven years old, sitting on the outside lavatory, picking the whitewash off the wall and watching the blackbird following my grandfather as he digs in his allotment, which is on the other side of the low wall of our yard. He’s turning the soil over one last time before winter sets in. I’ve left the door open. If it’s closed the darkness smothers me and I’m afraid; there would be only a thin line of light at the bottom of the door where the wind whistles through and causes goose-bumps on my legs. Heavy drops begin to fall to the ground, turning into muddy water on the clay soil. My grandfather pushes the peak of his cap off his forehead, squints up at the sky, and takes a tab end of cigarette from behind his ear. He rolls the flattened tip between forefinger and thumb but his hands are wet and the paper quickly becomes saturated. The strands of tobacco fall out. He swears softly, unaware I am there, and takes a small yellow tin from his trouser pocket. Balancing his spade against his leg, he carefully taps the remains of the cigarette into the box. I lean forward and tear a square of newspaper off the loop of string hanging from the back of the door, use it, and stand to pull up my knickers. The rain slants down in a sudden rush, hitting the flags in the yard with loud slaps. Granddad has disappeared into his shed. I shiver, thread the belt of my navy gabardine coat through the buckle and tighten it. Lowering the wooden lid of the lavatory, I sit on it, waiting for the rain to stop so that I can make a run for the house. After a few minutes it turns into a drizzle and, as I hesitate, my grandfather reappears to stand in the doorway of the shed. He glances to his left and I follow his gaze. I can hear the muffled clucking of the hens in their shelter in the run at the far side of his allotment. Granddad drags on the gold chain across his chest until he is holding his fob watch in his hands. His lips move with a low breathy whistle… It‘s a Long Way to Tipperary.If I go now he will see me and know I have been watching him. He hates being watched. A small dour man in poor health, we have lived with him since Grandma died, three years ago. Resentful of his need for my mother, he speaks as little as possible and spends much of his time in his allotment. He slips the watch back into the pocket in his padded brown waistcoat and begins the laborious process of rolling another cigarette. This always fascinates me and I watch until he finally crouches down to strike a match along the brick that he keeps by the shed door just for that purpose. Cupping his hands he shelters the flame and sucks vigorously. The paper flares for a second and then the tobacco glows red. Slouching against the door-frame Granddad lifts his chin and, making faces like a fish gulping, blows smoke rings upwards. We both watch as each circle floats away, expanding outwards until it is only a wisp of white against the glowering sky. Finally he pushes himself upright and strides towards the hen house, flicking the stump of cigarette into the air. It scatters sparks as it arcs away. I stop swinging my legs, uncross my ankles and peep around the door frame. The gate of the hen run is made from chicken wire, stretched over thin pieces of wood. He lifts it on its hinges and squeezes through. He stands still for a minute. The hens become quiet. He bends down, disappearing below the yard wall. There is a sudden commotion and when he stands up he is holding a hen by its legs. I turn my head sideways to look at it. It’s Ethel; I recognise her by the black patch of feathers on her wing that contrasts with the auburn ones. She is squawking and flapping frantically. Somehow I know what is going to happen. I open my mouth to shout but no sound comes out. I begin to run towards Grandad. With a quick twist he snaps her neck before I reach the gate. ‘Yes,’ I say to Mum. ‘Yes, I remember Granddad’s allotment.’Mum and I are vegetarians. I have been for as long as I can remember; Mum, since I started doing the cooking ten years ago.
Today we are planning to plant shallot and onion sets into the vegetable patch and to transfer the small tomato plants, I’ve grown from seed, into Gro-Bags, in the greenhouse.It’s cool for the beginning of May. The pale sun struggles through a skein of lemon clouds and a chilly breeze causes the line of Leylandii in next door’s garden to shiver constantly but in the shelter of our fence it’s pleasant and, in the greenhouse, quite warm. Mum is sitting, muffled up as usual, in her chair, just outside the doorway. ‘Warm enough?’ She doesn’t answer and, when I kneel down at her side, I see she is asleep; gentle snores bubbling her lips. I tuck her hands under the blanket and take the opportunity to carry the Gro-Bags from the shed to the greenhouse. The rattle of the wheelbarrow doesn’t wake her and I manage to get most of the tomato plants transferred before she starts to move restlessly, muttering to herself. Standing up I wipe my hands on my trousers and then kneel next to her, waiting for her to open her eyes. She gets frightened if she can’t see me at once. ‘Tea?’ ‘Whose house is this?’ ‘Tea?’ I ask again and she nods, touching my cheek. We sit on the bench outside the back door, holding hands, waiting for the kettle to boil.‘I’ll have to have a wash before I make the tea.’ But she won’t let go of my fingers. I hear the kettle switch off. ‘Just let me make the tea. I’m only in the kitchen.’ But as soon as I disappear she cries out. ‘Joyce…Joyce? Whose house is this? Joyce?’ ‘Won’t be a minute. Watch the birds. And just look at the Clematis; that plant, next to you in the tub. It’s never had so many flowers on it. Isn’t it pretty?’ I keep talking but she still calls my name. Hurriedly I brew, put two cups, a jug of milk, a packet of digestives and the teapot on the tray. The ’phone rings,‘No, thanks I don’t need double glazing, nor a conservatory.’ But the woman is persistent and keeps talking, so in the end I put the receiver down on her. ‘Coming now Mum.’ There is no answer. I look out of the window but can’t see her. ‘Mum?’ She’s not there. I hurry to the greenhouse, then the shed. A quick look around the garden proves fruitless. She’s nowhere to be seen. The gate’s swinging open. I run down the lane. There isn’t a footpath and I hope there are no boy racers trying the twists and turn of our narrow road today. The scent of the bluebells mixes with that of the wild garlic; the vivid blue diminished by the prolific cowslip. And there she is. I can hardly believe it; she is walking quite quickly in her pink fluffy slippers. Her white hair flows down her back and from the way she’s waving her arms around I can tell she’s upset, even before I hear her crying. There’s a wet patch on the back of her skirt so that the material clings to her skinny buttocks. ‘Mum.’ She doesn’t hear me. My breath is shallow; I’m not as young as I was. I catch up with her, careful not to touch or frighten her. ‘Mum?’ She stops and looks at me, sobbing; tears and snot mingle. ‘Lost,’ she says, ‘lost.’ ‘No, you’re not lost. I’m here now. Come on, let’s go home.’ She won’t move. She prods me in the chest. ‘No,’ she says, ‘no. Joyce, Joyce…lost…again. Always getting lost.’ ‘No, I’m here, Mum. See, I’m here. It’s me, Joyce,’ she hesitates, shaking her head. I say again, ‘Your daughter, Joyce. I’m here.’ She pushes me away, flapping her hands at me. ‘Not Joyce. Joyce…little. My little girl…lost. Frightened…without me…ends in tears.’ And I know what she means. When I was young, I would slip away from her in town; eager to explore but, inevitably, I would finish up being frightened by the freedom I had gained. Scared and alone and surrounded by strangers. ‘Oh, that Joyce,’ I say, ‘that Joyce. She’s back at the house, she came back.’ She stares at me suspiciously. ‘Came back? Never gets back…can’t get back.’ Looking into her eyes, the blue faded by years, I see a flicker of comprehension as she repeats, ‘…can never get back.’ I hold out my hand to her. Through the thin material of her cotton gloves, her fingers feel cold. And even though I know I am lying, I say firmly. ‘It’s never too late to go back, Mum. Now, let’s go home for that cup of tea.’ On the drive the cherry blossom floats its flowers down on us. ‘It’s a wedding.’ She laughs. And catches a petal.
The rain pounds heavily on the porch roof and when I open the door it gusts in with me. Mum, sitting in the wheelchair lent to us by Social Services, shouts, ‘Shut.’ She shouts a lot these days. She hates being inside but weeks of dull, grey days and rain have stopped us from going outside and, for some inexplicable reason, being in the greenhouse now frightens her, so things in there have been neglected. The garden has suffered, too. The grass on the lawn is inches long. It never dries out enough to be mown. The flower beds are a flattened slimy mess and the riot of colour that was spring has degenerated under one of the worst summers I can remember. Sometimes I feel that there is a scream waiting to burst from my mouth; one, which if I let it escape, will never stop. ‘What a day,’ I say, not expecting an answer. I straighten the blanket over her knees but she throws it off and punches my arm. Yet another bruise to add to the others. ‘Whose house…this?’ She’s wearing the purple satin evening gloves she once wore to a mayor’s ball she went to with Dad. She found them a few days ago, in a charity bag I’d put in the hall for the church jumble sale. ‘Mine,’ she’d shouted, triumphantly. She refuses to take them off. ‘Biscuit,’ she yells now, ‘tea and biscuit.’ ‘In a minute, Mum.’ I speak sharper than I meant to but I’m tired. Last night’s full moon had lit up the fuchsia outside her bedroom and the strong breeze that’s been blowing all week had whipped the branches around. The shadows had frightened her and kept her awake. I’m going to cut the bloody thing down. ‘It’s that fuck you thingy,’ she’d cried, ‘it’s getting in.’ ‘Fuchsia, Mum,’ I’m sure she knows what she’s saying. Long ago, a family friend, a Polish woman, had visited and admired the shrubs in the garden, ‘especially the fuckyas’ she’d enunciated carefully. Dad had left the room but we heard his guffaws as he went down the hall and it had become a family joke. ‘Fuck you,’ Mum says, obstinately. Like I say, sometimes I swear she knows what she’s saying. I bring in the last of the tomatoes. It’s been a poor year. They are tiny and green. I could throw them away but old habits die hard. ‘I’ll make chutney out of these.’ She doesn’t answer; she’s lost in her own world. I was never a cook. Mum had insisted on trying to teach me, years ago but had failed.‘You’ll need to attract a man somehow,’ she’d said, ‘with your looks you’ll have to find something that will make them want to stay.’ Lately, the more I think about it, the more I realise how spiteful she was when I was younger. I should have left her years ago. It’s too late now. I look through the kitchen window; there are some panes missing in the greenhouse. They were blown out in a gale, a few weeks ago and I haven’t bothered doing anything about it. I’m waiting for another storm; hopefully one that will flatten the bloody thing. I put Mum in the lounge, in front of the television. ‘Not our house,’ she mumbles.I ignore her. Alan Titchmarsh is telling her it’s time to tidy the garden before the long winter months. He’s always so damn cheerful. I’m not going to bother with the garden next year, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I brew the tea and pour Mum’s into the beaker with the spout. I make myself a sandwich, take a bite and throw it in the bin. I’m not hungry. I mash a banana for her. I don’t rush; she’s no sense of day or night anymore and wants to eat all the time. She’s put on a lot of weight. I’ve lost two stones and I am so tired. I haven’t been sleeping much and when I do I have nightmares. I wish Mum hadn’t reminded me about Granddad and Ethel. She’d laughed, all those years ago, when I told her what he’d done. Said not to be so soft.It’s starting to rain again.
Last night I killed my mother.I could say I didn’t want her to go in a home.Or the thought of winter depresses me.But, to be truthful, I’d had enough. I couldn’t carry on.It would have been easier to smother her. But it seemed right, somehow.It was so easy; just one quick twist.She never liked winter anyway.
I was given a copy of Season of Second Chances, as a member of Rosie Amber’s reviewing team.
Grace Sullivan flees Dublin with her two teenage children, returning to the sleepy West Cork village where she grew up. No one in Killrowan knows what Grace is running from – or that she’s even running. She’d like to keep it that way.
Taking over from her father, Des, as the village doctor offers a very real chance for Grace to begin again. But will she and the children adapt to life in a small rural community? Can she live up to the doctor her father was? And will she find the inner strength to face the past when it comes calling?
Season of Second Chances is Grace’s story. It’s also the story of a community that chooses the title “Young Doctor Sullivan” for her before she even arrives. It’s the story of Des, who served the villagers all his life and now feels a failure for developing Parkinson’s disease. And it’s the story of struggling teens, an intimidating receptionist, a handsome American novelist escaping his past, and a dog called Benji who needs a fresh start of his own.
I haven’t read anything from Aimee Alexander before but, as I love any story about the machinations and intricacies of families, when I saw Season of Second Chances on the #RBRT reading list, I decided to choose this book. It’s described as a novel about, ‘family, love and learning to be kind to yourself…A heart-warming story of friendship, love and finding the inner strength to face a future that may bring back the past.’
In a way it’s a predictable plot. But it’s so well written I don’t think that matters too much. And with a thoroughly rounded protagonist in Grace Sullivan, it’s easy to believe in her; to start cheering for her straight away in her secret quest to escape her life with an abusive husband. She is desperate to find her roots again in the village of Killrowan, in West Cork; where she grew up with her parents. But, having been away for years, and taking her father’s place in the GP practice following his retirement, she is initially treated with suspicion by most of his patients.So she is lucky to rediscover the support of two old friends.
In addition to the antipathy of some of the villagers she has two teenage children who have problems of their own; Jack, who utterly resents the move, and her daughter, Holly, who, though glad to have escaped from their father, is emotionally damaged. But both are protective of their mother.
I also liked the parallel plot of the change in Des, Grace’s father. Having retired and in poor health, her return with her family brings him out of his chosen isolation and gives him hope for the future.
I try not to give too much information about story-lines so I’ll leave it there.
Both the main characters and the minor supporting ones are well drawn, with dialogue that immediately identifies them and I could easily picture each one as they took their part in the story.
The settings are brilliantly described and give a good sense of place. I especially liked the sense of peace that is shown through Grace when she is by the sea. There are excellent descriptions here.
There is also a lovely, almost cameo piece, of a dog, Benji, coming into their lives.
Of necessity, in a story of domestic abuse, there are themes of cruelty, fear, lies, self-hatred and loneliness. But in Season of Second Chances, there is also hope, friendship and love. These are all well balanced throughout the book.
As I’ve said, it is a predictable plot in many ways but I loved the author’s style of writing. And, tantalisingly, there are also a couple of loose ends. These left me to suspect that there would be a sequel to Season of Second Chances.As, indee, the author states in the end notes.
I would recommend Season of Second Chances to any reader who enjoys a good story in which to escape.
Back in 1816, Jane Austen (yes, I always try to bring her into anything if I can) commiserated with her nephew when he reported that he had lost 2 whole chapters of his own tentative novel. She hadn’t stolen them, she promised. “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”
Being Jane Austen, she was, of course, being ironic, suggesting that her own writing was on such a slight and insignificant scale. Sir Walter Scott recognised that her work was fair more powerful than a little bit of ivory would allow. “The big bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.”
And yet critics have dared to complain that Austen’s novels are too limited, confined to “three or four families in a country village,” when all around her, the social upheaval of the industrial revolution, the French Terror, the Napoleonic wars were playing out. She knew well enough what great dramas were happening out there. A cousin’s husband was guillotined, an aunt was hauled off to prison, two brothers were serving in the navy, and yet she chose to concentrate on a small group of people interacting on a tiny stage as if the outside world didn’t exist. But what Jane Austen appreciated was that there is just as much emotional and psychological drama to be found in closed families as on wide battlefields.
I write about crime. My genre has been defined as Domestic Noir and it always focuses on the dark dynamics at work within a family, a neighbourhood, a close circle of friends. Does that mean it lacks the drama of a crime novel set, say, among Columbian drug barons, or the Mafia, or human traffickers or crooked financiers in the city? It probably lacks the extreme gore of a hard-boiled thriller. I work on the assumption that lashing out wildly and causing a loved one’s death with a misplaced blow is just as tragic and dramatic as a gruesome plot involving a victim’s head being chewed off by a bear.
Domestic drama might lack the fast pace of mainstream crime fiction too. It tends to be a matter of a slow burn, rising gradually to a rolling boil, scalding oil and an all-consuming blaze. That’s what I like, because it is what goes on in families – and with isolating lock-down, even more so. You don’t have to look to the scheming world of international crime or the grimy nastiness of the underworld to discover every facet of human emotion – thundering passion, consuming rage, seething jealousy, love, hope, disappointment, despair, joy, triumph, resentment, remorse. They are all there, simmering behind lace curtains.
Judith Barrow’s latest book, The Memory, proves the point exactly. Following the story of Irene from young girl greeting the birth of her beloved Downs Syndrome sister to aging carer of a mother with dementia, it is an exquisite study of how family ties and stresses stir up every possible joy and anguish from deep protective love to long-nursed hatred, with sheer bloody exhaustion nudging inexorably towards a fatal brink.
Read it and tell me a domestic drama can’t shake the reader as much as a shoot-out in bank vaults or torture in a cellar.