Sunday, 31 March 2013

Eavesdropping on Someone's Life - Norman Nicholson

NN's papers offered at auction
Writing this on the train back from Manchester, across the frozen, snow-bound Pennines.  I’ve been in the John Rylands Library all week, locked in the Special Collections unit, with the Norman Nicholson archive.

It’s a thrilling, but strange experience, reading the letters of the long-dead - people you didn’t know.
Rather voyeuristic.  The past is a time-capsule you can wander about in, finding tantalising snippets of a life - bus tickets, postcards, receipts, newspaper cuttings, letters and appointment diaries.  And you wonder just how true your impressions of people are, taken from the random, everyday trivia they preserved, and what they chose to reveal of themselves to others.  We’re all selective when it comes to what we want to disclose, depending on who the other person is and the impression we want to make.

At the moment, in his late teens and early twenties, Norman is coming across as rather callow and just a touch arrogant.  But maybe it’s all a pose, from a young man who lost all his chances of university life and a glittering academic career, by contracting TB and being shut up on his own in a sanatorium for 2 years.  He has a lot to prove and he doesn’t want people to think him an uneducated, working-class write-off.  It will be interesting to watch him develop.  Because that’s one of the plus-factors of biography - you get to watch your subject grow up.

I had a long chat with Dr David Cooper over lunch - he’s the unchallenged expert on Norman Nicholson’s poetry.  There’s very little critical material on Nicholson, so it’s good to be able to discuss it with someone who’s spent years studying it.  David Cooper has deliberately avoided the biographical aspect to focus on the text, so his opinion is going to be interesting.

Now it’s back to the Mill to write it all up.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Rachel Abbott reveals some secrets about her new best-seller

I've just been reading Rachel Abbott's new thriller The Back Road, and I'm very impressed by it.  I'm also curious to know what's behind an Indie best-seller.  Rachel works very hard and is very professional and I'm anxious to learn as much as possible.

1.      Rachel, I know that - like me - you spend quite a lot of your working life in Italy.  Do you find it disruptive going to and fro?  How do you find the atmosphere of Italy affects your ability to work?  What are the drawbacks, from a research point of view, of being in one place and writing about another?

When we found our home in Italy we were really fortunate because from the day we saw it – a total ruin without a roof, and in some places not even walls – we felt that there was a special atmosphere about the place. It was peaceful, because it’s in the middle of the country, but there was a real feeling of serenity about it. I‘m probably being a fanciful writer, but that’s how it seemed to us. When I arrive there, I instantly relax, and however hard I’m working, it feels stress free.

We have a home in Alderney in the Channel Islands too, and I’ve been spending most of my time there, so there hasn’t been too much disruptive travelling for me – just for my husband - and as part of my next book will be based here on the island, that’s a real advantage.

I didn’t really have an issue writing Only the Innocent, because the locations were all places I know – London, Oxford – where I lived for a while – and several Italian locations. So that was fine. With The Back Road the location is a Cheshire village – and I have lived in a village too (although not in Cheshire).

I do think that to evoke the atmosphere of a place you have to have experienced it, and I’m really looking forward to writing the Channel Islands sections of my next book, because without a doubt you could not write about Alderney without ever experiencing it. Another totally unique place. 

2.      I find the atmosphere of place very strong in your novels.  I know those villages - I've met those people.  How do you get that atmosphere?

I am a bit fanatical about planning when I write. By the time I put pen to paper, figuratively speaking, I know exactly how every place looks. Take Ellie’s house in The Back Road, for example. I can actually see every detail of it in my head. I grab images of the internet and I paste them into my locations file. I have images of Ellie’s kitchen, atrium dining room, the outside of the house.

So when I write, I’m writing about places that I know as well as my own home. Even for the dinner party in The Back Road, I have a seating plan. I need to know who has to lean across somebody else to speak to another person.

When I write about a village, I work out where the shops are, and get photos of villages if I don’t already have a visual image. With regard to the people, obviously the main characters are very fully worked out before I start to write, but some of them do evolve. Leo, in The Back Road ended up taking a much more prominent position than she originally had, because I just love her.

When it comes to the villagers, though, these are people that I’ve really met. I don’t mean that each of them is modelled on a specific person, but there are characteristics that I have picked up and used. I observe people all the time (probably quite spookily) and love it when I see an interesting quirk that I can add to a character. 

3.      Do you ever envisage writing something set in Italy?
There were a few bits in Only the Innocent that took place in Italy – Venice, Positano and Le Marche – but one or two people have suggested I should do a complete novel based there. If Tom Douglas is still involved, as he definitely is in my next book, I would have to think of some reason for him going there, but I don’t think that would be very difficult.

It would be hard to resist making it a comedy, though. When we bought our first house in Italy thirteen years ago, we chose an area where there were practically no other English people, and it was one hundred per cent Italian in attitude and behaviour. We found so many things to make us smile - in a very affectionate way. On our first day there we took the project manager who was organising the restoration of our property into the nearby town (a beautiful medieval walled village, actually), and he showed us where to park the car – right underneath a tow sign. I pointed to it and he just shrugged and said, “It’s lunchtime. The police will be eating then sleeping. It’s okay” and that really set the tone.

I started to jot all these little quirks and amusing moments in a notebook with the thought of writing them into a novel - but I think I am more naturally inclined towards murder!
4.      Where did the idea for The Back Road come from?

Have you ever been to a dinner party and got the feeling that there were things going on that you didn’t quite understand? Perhaps you saw a look pass between two people that you couldn’t exactly read? I wanted to write about ordinary people – some of whom have secrets. They may not necessarily be huge, life changing acts of deception, but if discovered they would have an impact on lives.

I wondered what would happen if some explosive catalyst was thrown into the mix, so that all the deceit is uncovered in a way that nobody can prevent or control.

5.      I love the way you get food into the story (it's what I love about the Montalbano novels) - is this something you personally care about?

I love food. I enjoy cooking, and The Back Road did start off with even more cooking in, until my editor said it was a bit over the top! I wrote a scene in which Leo is in the supermarket with Ellie and they are buying some raw prawns, which Leo sees as grey slimy looking things until Ellie says she’s going to marinate them in lemon and garlic, barbecue them and then throw them into a salad with some avocado, feta cheese and a herb dressing. That got cut, unfortunately.

I think that for people who love food, it gives a much better feeling for the occasion. We could have had the dinner party in The Back Road without any mention of what everybody ate, but as a reader that wouldn’t have been the same for me at all. I’ve put quite a few of the recipes on my website too – and they’re all tried and tested – most of them were actually made up by me in the first place.

6.   As someone who is both traditionally published and self-published, I'm interested in your views on having a foot in both camps.  After the success of Only the Innocent - which I'm sure is going to be repeated with The Back Road - how do you feel about self-publishing now?

I think both forms of publishing have their advantages and disadvantages. With self-publishing there is a real sense of control, which is great. I can check my sales figures every two minutes if I want to (which I don’t, by the way) and I can choose the cover, control the blurb, and so on.

The bad thing about self-publishing is that many people actually can’t afford to have a professional editor. I couldn’t when I wrote Only the Innocent, and it was a success without that. But as soon as I had an agent after the success, she found me an editor and we did a thorough job of updating the book – and dramatically improving it. With a traditional deal, that would have happened before publication.

I feel that for The Back Road I have the best of both worlds. It has been professionally edited, which once again made a difference, but I chose to self-publish mainly because of the timing. I didn’t want to have to wait another six months to publish in the UK. The marketing side scared me a little, though, because I know that after Only the Innocent was launched, I did nothing but marketing for three months. I don’t want to do that again – I want to write books!

One of the most significant advantages of a traditional publisher is their ability to do the marketing of the book – although I know that it isn’t always the case. With the Thomas and Mercer deal in the US, they do all the marketing, and it’s a huge weight of my shoulders – leaving me free to write. 

6.      Just how much do you think your own awareness of media systems and your cyber-knowledge contribute to your success?  Do you have any advice on using social media for new authors?

To be honest, I didn’t have any social media following at all when I launched Only the Innocent. I had set up a Twitter account, and had a stunning nine followers, and a Facebook page that I never used.

However, I do have a background in web development and in my previous job marketing was really important. This experience helped me to think more strategically about how to approach the whole social media arena.

My one piece of advice would be to write a marketing plan – create your own strategy. I bang on about this all the time on my blog, but it is so very easy to just plug away at something that isn’t helping at all, and writing a strategy helps you to think things through properly and justify how you spend your time. For example, you may have a Twitter strategy that says you want to increase your following to 10,000. The questions I would ask are “Why?” and “Who?” because you need to understand why you think having a lot of followers is going to help you, and you need to decide who they are going to be.

There are sites that offer lots of followers – but as a writer, you need followers who read books – and specifically your kind of book. So you have to work out how to get those, and then how you’re going to engage them.

I’m learning all the time – and changing and tweaking my plan. But every marketing action that I take has a clear purpose, as defined in my plan. 

7.      Finally - who are your favourite thriller writers?

I love Harlan Coben (not the Myron Bollitar books – although they’re quite good fun). What I like about his stand alone books is that they are usually told from the point of view of the victim, rather than the police, and the story lines are very unique.

I also loved the early Minette Walters and Mary Higgins Clark books. I love books where I can empathise with the protagonist, and if they’re well written, I can feel what they are feeling – even if that’s fear.

I have also been a big Val McDermid fan over the years and I thought Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was well written and absorbing, although I didn’t actually like the characters. But, I will certainly read more of her books. 

Thanks for your time Rachel - I loved the book and hope it's a great success!
You can read my review here.

Rachel blogs at
 And you can look at her website here.


Thursday, 21 March 2013

Too Tired to Blog! Curling up with a book.

It can be bleak here in winter.
 After the frenetic travelling, trains, hotels and social events of the last week it was a bit depressing to arrive at a cold, empty house in the dark on a damp, cold evening, with snow on the ground.  Three months mail had accumulated on the dining table (thanks to a kind friend who sweeps it up every week) and there was milk in the fridge from the same kind friend. But it was all a bit of an anti-climax and it felt very lonely.  I whacked the central heating boiler up to maximum and went to bed with TWO hot water bottles!

I’ve spent the last couple of days catching up with the post and sorting out the house.  It’s very odd coming into a place you haven’t been in for such a long time - it seems to belong to a stranger and you notice things differently.  I found myself looking round the accumulated junk of a life-time and thinking ‘Do I really need all this?’  So a bit of de-cluttering is on the to-do list.  I'd intended to do some gardening, but that's out of the question.  The ground is either water-logged or frozen solid depending on the time of day and it's too cold to do any pruning or planting. Spring still hasn't arrived here.

This isn't normal weather for mid-March. There’s more snow on the way apparently - lots of it - and Siberian winds, so I’d better get the thermal gear out of the cupboard and onto the radiators in preparation.  There’s hot chocolate on the shelf in the kitchen and plenty of new reading matter to curl up with  - Sarah Salway’s new poetry collection ‘You do not need another self-help book’ - just in time for World Poetry Day -  was waiting in the pile of mail on the table, plus a book of short stories by contemporary Irish writer Nuala Ni Chonchuir, called ‘To the World of Men, Welcome’,  as well as  ‘In Their Own Words’ a book of poets on poetry edited by Helen Ivory and George Szirtes.  Good stuff on the Kindle too - Rachel Abbott’s new thriller The Back Road (read on the train),  Kathleen Jamie’s fabulous collection of essays  ‘Sightlines’ and ‘Orkney’ - the new novel by Amy Sackville that I’ve been waiting two years for.  British winter weather is perfect for reading!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Katherine Mansfield at the Oxford Literature Festival

I'm just dashing around and packing up to catch a plane tomorrow morning back to the UK - and I do sometimes wish my life would allow me to be in one place for more than 2 weeks at a time!   I've been booked to appear at the Sunday Times Oxford Literature Festival, for an event 'Katherine Mansfield- 90 years on' in discussion with Gerri Kimber, who's the editor of the new Collected Fiction of KM.  Should be an entertaining event.  There's nothing Gerri and I like better than talking about - and arguing about - Mansfield!  It's taking place at Christ Church, 12 mid-day on Sunday 17th March, and this is the link for anyone around Oxford on the day.

'Katherine Mansfield:  90 Years On'

And then, just before I can get comfortable, I'm due in York on Tuesday 19th March to do the York Literature Festival 'Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys: Writers in Exile', which is at Jacobs Well at 2pm.  Two of my favourite writers - and fascinating parallel lives.  And only £4.00

Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys:  Writers in Exile

Katherine Mansfield:  The Story-teller - now available as an E-book

Monday, 11 March 2013

Tuesday Poem: Billy Collins - Litany

Billy Collins steals someone else's poem and makes me smile!

For more wonderful Tuesday Poems please visit the Tuesday Poem main website and check out the side bar for more contributions.  This week the main hub poem is from Oceania.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Pearls: A Story for Mothers' Day

It's three months now since Jack Farrar left for America.  His brother wrote to say that there was good work to be had in New York and no one cared where you said your Sunday prayers, so as soon as Jack got his half year pay he was off.  'Come with me,' he said.  But how could I, placed as I am?   And he has been much missed.  We’ve been good company since he came to work here two years ago from his lordship's Killarney estates, having fallen out with the steward there. 

Jack was not approved here either, though he worked hard.  I heard Mr Lines tell him that he served with a bad grace and should show more gratitude, though what Jack should have been grateful for he didn't say.  Jack made some retort I couldn't hear and Mr Lines rebuked him in a tight voice, saying that he should keep his politics to himself.

Jack gave me some hard words too before he left.  'You're a fool Katy,'  he told me,  'Save yourself while you still can, for no-one else will.  Not almighty God and certainly not that bag of shite on his gilded throne upstairs.'

His lordship's not a bad man, I think, but just what men are, and as much a slave of what he was born to as Jack Farrar.  And not as free, for he can't take ship and sail away from his great estates and his many relations and their demands.  For myself, if I had his advantages, I would get rid of the Lady Margaret, but he dotes on his mother more than he does his wife, who is a pale, limp thing with more pedigree than purpose.  This phrase, springing so readily to my mind, gives me a pang, for it is stable-talk and one of Jack's expressions.


Vanity is a venial sin, but in the cracked mirror above the chest of drawers, when I take off my shift to go to bed, I am sometimes tempted to look at my breasts and hold the weight of them in my cupped hands.  They're swollen now, veined with blue, the nipples dark and thick as thumbs.   I can feel my breasts ache at the thought of  his soft fingers at my bodice, his tongue's flutter against the hard nipple.   A drop of milk oozes from one breast at the memory of it and hangs from the teat like a small pearl - the jewel that is both my shame and my keep.   It purchases the fine linen shift I put over my head and the Indian muslins I wear in summer weather, that are the envy of the laundry maid.  I dine well, for I must eat for two and his lordship's child must not go hungry.  For the same reason I am fed from my lady's table and  -  because I am not fit to dine with her - I take my trays in my room.  Last night it was potted trout and roast chicken with a baked custard to follow.  I ate, I'll wager, more than she did, for her  face is as thin as a twelve year old girl and her wrists like wish-bones.

When she was heavy with the child, she glowed with her own importance - pampered, fed by her husband's hand.  The same fingers that stroked my breasts, plucked grapes and peeled apricots for her as she lay on the sofa, her cheeks flushed, her eyes full of light, her hair a glossy brown coil.  And when I was laid low with disgrace, she was proud and joyous from the same cause.  Our fates have stayed in equal opposition since.  
I buried my daughter in the same month she was born and now it is my lady's child that I hold in my arms - her son whose eyes hold mine, who tugs on the nipple and then slackens his grip to smile at me with dark eyes like his father's.  And when he sucks, with such a strong pull, I feel that sweet ache in my stomach that is so sinful a girl can lose her virtue for it. 


There are still those who say the child was Jack's, but he has never touched me.  All we ever did was talk, and - though it would seem strange to others - that conversation was of more importance to me than anything I have ever done with another.


My mistress visits my room sometimes, coming through the door hesitantly as if needing permission and then sitting silently on the hard chair beneath the window to watch.   She had begged, they say, to suckle her own child, but the Lady Margaret forbade it.  Only peasant women stoop so low;  a fine lady must not behave like a cow or a goat - her body must be a thing of beauty, reserved for her husband's pleasure.  So I nurse her child, his tiny fingers curled round mine, his face gazing into mine and it is my blood that feeds him, flesh of my flesh that he becomes day after day, as he grows fat with my good milk.  If it were me in that chair, I could not sit so still; I would claw my child from the arms of any woman who held him.

They tell me I had to be pulled from throwing myself into the grave with my own babe, though I do not remember much of it now.  The priest said it was more a sin to embrace death of my own will than it was to have a child out of wedlock.

But no drop of family milk must be wasted. The Lady Margaret came herself to fetch me from the nuns, for the woman they had engaged to nurse proved dry and their son and heir was crying night and day.  At first I could not bear to think of another's baby at my breast while my own daughter lay cold in her swaddling bands, but, when I heard the child sobbing, my swollen, tender, traitorous breasts dripped milk of their own accord, soaking the front of my gown as I stood there, and I could see my Lady Margaret smile.  
They were cruel, those first days - the child's greedy sucking hour after hour, my breasts engorged and  my nipples so sore I couldn't bear even the touch of my clothes against them.  And in my heart - that pain was worse to suffer.

Once, nursing the babe beside the fire, I looked down at him drawing hard on the teat in spite of my agony and it was all I could do not to throw him in the flames and run out into the night.  Why should her child live and mine perish?   The feeling was so urgent that I must get up and walk away to the end of the room, clutching the child to me, my legs trembling and my stomach weak.  I must be very sinful to fall so low and have such wicked thoughts.

I once heard my lady talking to her husband about the moral danger of my employment - that the child might imbibe my moral laxity with the milk.  Little does she know that the blessed babe suckles at the same teat as his father did, though the Lady Margaret is not so stupid.   And it is not only my morals they fear he might swallow, but my religion also.  I have not taken mass or made my confession since I returned here.  The priest asks to see me when he comes to the servants' hall for his fish supper on a Friday night, but he is forbidden to come upstairs.  Which is a blessing since I have little taste for priests these days.


It's the night feeds that are the best, when the house is still and the babe warm against my stomach, his dark head in the crook of my elbow.  I can feel his breath on my skin as he sucks and I am drowsy with pleasure.   Just the babe and I in the darkness beyond the yellow circle of the candle flame.  They make me leave the door ajar so that they can be sure I don't take him to bed and overlay him, though the old nurse snoring in her bed next door would never know, she sleeps so deep.

In the beginning when the child cried, the Lady Margaret used to appear suddenly, her cap strings dangling, and her candle held high so's not to drip wax on her robe of red brocade, and she would stand in the doorway and watch me settle him before padding back down the stairs to her own room.  She does not come now, but sometimes I can sense a presence in the darkness and I know that someone else is watching through the gap in the door.  It must be, I think, a touching picture.  I am the Madonna of the night - a girl with loose hair in a cotton shift, unbuttoned, suckling a seven month child.  But when he is back in his crib, it is not the babe who is in danger of being overlaid, and I am full of fear, for there are some sins too terrible to be forgiven.


The mistress came again today to watch me feed her son.  Her face grows thinner as her belly swells.  Her eyes, like her hair, are dull.  Today she told me that she is mortally afraid of another confinement.  I could see that she did not mean to tell me and was sorry straight away.  Such confidences are meant for woman friends, not servants.

'I almost died having him,'  she said, by way of excuse.  'He was such a big baby and I'm so small.'
'You'll be just fine,'  I said.   'Don't you have the best doctors?  And a lying-in nurse from London?'  I tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice, remembering my own birthing, left in the straw to manage as best I could by myself, taking Eve's punishment for her sin.  But what would my lady know of that?
'I feel so pulled down.  If only I'd been given more time ....... '  She  lowered her head and chewed her lips, having said too much.  But she's right, he must have had her on her back between the sheets before the monthly nurse had boarded the Liverpool ferry.  And there will be another child for me to feed before this one is weaned.   


Some nights if the child is slow to go down, I take my candle and go walking with him through the silent house.  My bare feet make no more noise on their thick carpets than the housekeeper's cat.  And I wander through the rooms I am forbidden by day, the little lordship on my shoulder, showing him his inheritance.  I know every corner of these grand rooms, every lacquered table, every porcelain bowl and silver sconce, for wasn't it me that polished and dusted them in another life?   I know something of the paintings too, the sombre ancestors in their elaborate frames - people that only Mr Lines can put a name to, his family having been stewards here for three generations.  And there are women in silks and ribbons with long noses and powdered hair three feet high in the manner of the unfortunate French Queen.  The Lady Margaret is one of them, with a strange affair of flowers and feathers  perched on top of her wig and an indecent amount of flesh over the top of her bodice.  She does not look like that now.

 In the gallery at the top of the stairs is the painting his lordship brings everyone to see, for it is Italian, brought back by his grandfather from the grand tour.  When I first came here it was not to my taste, for it reminded me of the church; a sour-faced Madonna with an oversized child at her breast and a landscape of  rocky shores and sailing ships over her shoulders.  Now, as I stand there, holding up my candle, with the child growing hot and sleepy against my neck, I think that perhaps she is sad.  There is something in her eyes as she looks at her infant that any mother would know.

When the library door is closed I don't go in.  But some nights, if it's unlocked, I push it open and walk inside.  It smells of himself - a cold, sharp smell like water thrown on a peat fire to damp it down, and the scent of the tobacco which he keeps in blue porcelain jars on the corner of the desk.  I run my finger over the leather spines of the books, and sometimes, if I take a fancy to the title, I borrow one of them,  for I can read at least better than her ladyship.  My mother taught me that.

When they are away in Dublin I sometimes take the key from the drawer where he hides it, pull aside the shelf of almanacs and open the safe where he keeps his private papers and my lady's jewels.  I like to open the boxes and try them in the mirror.  This case of red morocco holds the diamonds he bought her when the child was born, which she is very proud of, though they are not to my taste, for they are hard and cold against the skin.  And this is the collar of sapphires, blue as the Madonna's gown, that was the Lady Margaret's wedding gift.  He let me try it once, when my lady was visiting her mother and he gave me a glass of Spanish wine in front of the fire, loosening my bodice and fastening the gems around my neck.  They looked very pretty in the mirror, glinting in the firelight.  But my favourites are the pearls, nested in blue velvet, a thick strand, given to my lady as a birthday gift before they were married, and which she does not like.  She will wear neither pearls nor rubies, he told me, for they signify blood and tears.  The pearls lie warm around my throat, the colour of milk.

'They become you,'  he said, putting his hand on my shoulder and lifting my hair to caress my neck.  If my child was a son, he told me, he would see me right.  But he made no promises for a girl.   


My mother worked here once - 'An excellent domestic,' Mr Lines called her - but she left when I was born and went to keep house for the priest.   Of my father she never spoke - it was a question that could not be asked.  And when she died of a wasting sickness when I was but eleven, the Lady Margaret sent Mr Lines' wife to fetch me here in memory of my mother, though it is not the life my mother wanted for me.  To hear my mother talk, this house was Babylon and the Lady Margaret the great Queen Jezebel herself.  She would rather have burned in hell than see me walk through its gates.  I could not see, when I first came, what it was she hated so, but five years later when I walked down the drive with his lordship's child in my belly and no character but the one I'd made for myself, I understood better.


This morning when I got out of bed my stomach was so disordered I sent my breakfast back uneaten - an event so original even the kitchen maid remarked on it when she came to take my tray.  I have been nauseous all day, but more with anxiety than sickness.  This is the third occasion in a week and I greatly fear the cause of it.  Every woman knows you can't be caught while you are feeding.  But could it be?  I have seen no monthly blood since my daughter's birth, so there is no other sign to guide me.  But now this thought is in my mind.  If it happens tomorrow I must give my breakfast to the dogs or the servants' hall will have it for a fact.

After I had fed the child and given him to his nurse I went for a walk through the gardens down to the river, not caring who saw me go.    It was a good day, with flying cloud and a bit of sun to warm the wind.   I had Jack Farrar's letter in my pocket.  He has a good job already, labouring on a bridge - he says New York is all building and there are plenty of openings even for a woman.  He is lodging with another Irish woman called Mary Hogan who can neither read nor write.  I could get good trade, Jack says, in penning letters for the people here, and there are those who would pay just to learn their ABC.   And there is other, more humble employment in keeping the men fed and their clothes clean.  'The work is hard, but honest, and your soul is your own.   Will you not come?' Jack writes.

The surface of the river puckers as a salmon rises to a fly that has flown too near the surface.  I can see my future in front of me very clear.  If I am not caught now, then I will be again, for I cannot get free of him as long as I am here.  And then I will be at the mercy of the priests who will put my child in the orphan house and me to work in the convent laundry.  I have had a taste of it and will not go there again, but I am so mired in sin I do not know how to get out.


It has been more than a week since Jack's letter and I haven't stopped thinking about how it might be managed.  Then yesterday my lady had a whim to go up to Dublin to buy some new linen for her lying in.  His lordship never passes the chance to spend time and money in the city, so he must go too, and I could scarcely believe my fortune when the Lady Margaret said that she would go with them to see her sister.
So tonight the house is empty and everyone asleep but me.  I waited until the clock chimed ten and I heard Mr Lines lock the front door.  Then I went down to take the pearls from the safe.  When I turned the key and pulled the door open, there was a leather pouch  just at the front, which almost fell out, as if it had been pushed in hurriedly.  When I peered inside there were the sovereigns his lordship had got from Lord Annesley two days ago for a mare.   I took four of them and, together with the pearls, became a common thief.  But such thievery is a small thing in the list of sins I have committed.   And I must not think of it as stealing.  These coins are my wages, rightfully due, and will buy me a passage to America.   And the pearls I will think of as a present from his lordship, to 'see me right' in my new life.  I can sell them one by one if I have the need to, and if not I shall keep them as an heirloom.
But as I was taking the pearls from the safe I heard footsteps in the hallway and straight put out the candle and swung the shelf to and slipped down onto the floor behind his lordship's chair.    The steps came closer and then I heard the door open and a pool of light spilled across the carpet.  I could see by the old black shoes poking from under the hem of the brown woolsey, that it was Mrs Lines and knew then that my fortune had not changed and all my plans must miscarry.  She held the candle high, staying very quiet for a moment as if to listen.  My heart was thundering in my breast, my breathing very fast, and it seemed impossible for her not to hear it, or to smell the smoke from the candle wick.   She advanced two steps into the room, so that I knew I was undone.
But then she stopped and  turned and went out again, closing the door behind her.  I was praying, do not lock it, I pray you, do not turn the key!   And, thanks be to whatever gods watch over thieves and fornicators,  it stayed on the inside of the door and I heard her feet going down the corridor and then the quiet thud of the baize door.  My legs shook so much I could hardly stand up and my hands trembled so that I fumbled the key in the safe and made so much noise putting it in the drawer, I thought it must surely fetch her back.

The child was stirring when I came upstairs and I picked him up and put him to my breast, still shaking from the fright.  He smiled at me, such a sweet smile as I put him down in the crib, that I was provoked to a storm of weeping and almost persuaded to change my mind.    I am calmer now, having put my best clothes in a bag and sewn the pearls into my bodice.   I will wait until midnight and then slip out of the side door.   I can walk fast and by morning, when the child wakes, I will be well along the Dublin road, beyond the reach of anyone who knows me,  and can hitch a ride on a wagon going north to Belfast.  I will tell the carrier I have been turned off by my employer and am going to my sister in Larne.   The babe will cry and cry for me, but I must not think of that now, or of his dear face at the breast.  For I know for certain that I will never feed another child of hers.

© Kathleen Jones 2013

More Fiction by Kathleen:
The Sun's Companion - historical novel
Three - short fiction, Amazon Triplet

Painting possibly by Eugene de Blaas  

Friday, 8 March 2013

Back to a very Italian Reality

So here I am back in a politically confused Italy, where comedians, rather than politicians, have been calling the shots.  Many people I know voted for Beppe Grillo - a famous TV satirical comedian - in a protest against the establishment and in the hope of bringing down the corrupt and unworkable system.  The result is that a comedian holds the balance of power here! It couldn't get crazier.

I am jet-lagged - wake up each morning with a hangover without the night-before party to compensate.  There are three suitcases of dirty washing and it's been raining non-stop for three days.  But I'm not complaining.  In Cambodia my email was hacked, my Facebook account was hacked, my bank cards stopped, and I had a scary experience with third world medical facilities.  I'm still trying to straighten it all out.   And I feel rather like the guy with the suitcases on the carnival float.

We arrived back in the middle of the Pietrasanta carnival afternoon.  It's a small community affair, unlike the big international carnival at Viareggio, but we enjoyed an hour or so among the floats before heading for the supermarket.  It's good to be back, even in the rain.  Italy, crazy, crazy Italy, has begun to feel like home.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Tuesday Poem: Meeting the Tuesday Poets

Not a poem - just a journey and some good meetings at the end of it.  I've been a member of the Tuesday Poets for a few years now, but the only poets I knew face to face were Tim Jones and Mary McCallum - met on previous visits to New Zealand.  So this time I was determined to put faces to as many names as possible.  In Christchurch I met two poets I'd exchanged emails with and whose poems I'd featured on my blog, Catherine Fitchett and Helen Lowe.  Sadly, Andrew Bell was away and couldn't make the meeting. Catherine is a fine poet whose work you can read here.   Helen Lowe is also an internationally award winning fantasy novelist.  It was difficult to find a bar accessible to all of us, in quake-riven Christchurch, but eventually we all made it, through traffic diversions and rush-hour jams.  The earthquakes have changed CC dwellers social lives forever.
Helen Lowe and her partner Andrew, Catherine Fitchett and Kathleen

In Dunedin I met Orchid Tierney and Claire Beynon.   Orchid's studying Digital Poetics - a course that's taking her to America shortly and is currently putting together an anthology called 'Mapping Me: A Landscape of Women's Stories' in collaboration with a Russian Armenian writer.  Claire is also a visual artist (as you can see from her astonishing website) and I was very sad that my visit to Dunedin was so brief and there wouldn't be time to see any of her work.
Claire, Orchid and Kathleen
 In Wellington we had a very convivial evening in the library bar - a lovely combination of alcohol and books! -  meeting Tim and Mary again, but also Janis Freegard, Helen Rickerby, and Harvey Molloy.   Tim blogs at Books in the Trees and has a recent anthology Men Briefly Explained, which I like a lot. He also writes speculative fiction.  They're a multi-talented lot these Tuesday Poets!  Mary McCallum also writes fiction - her novel The Blue was published by Penguin and attracted some wonderful reviews.  Her current blog today features Janis Freegard, who I met for the first time and who has a new collection out called The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider.    Helen Rickerby isn't just a poet, she's also the managing editor of Seraph Press and JAAM magazine - oh, and she has a day job as well.  She won my heart posting a poem called 'Partying with Katherine Mansfield' over the weekend of the Mansfield conference in Wellington - another KM fan.  Harvey Molloy is a teacher as well as a very good poet - you can find his Notebook here.  Again, not enough time to talk to anyone properly.
Tim, Janis, Harvey, Mary, Helen and Kathleen
But at least I know a little more about some of the people who post the poems on the blog every Tuesday.  A group I'm very happy to belong to.  And maybe one of these days I'll get to meet the others - in Australia, or America - there are even a couple in the UK I haven't met yet.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

A Visit to Kep - a well Kept Secret!

Time in Sihanoukville has been a bit marred by my picking up a nasty respiratory infection - easy to do here where there are all sorts of bacteria floating round in the dust.  Felt quite ill for a few days, but a visit to a local clinic ruled out anything sinister and as soon as the antibiotics kicked in I began to feel better.  It is no joke having a fever in temperatures of 35 plus and humidity touching 90%.

Neil got the opportunity to go to Kep, a very unspoilt fishing village on the coast towards the Vietnamese border.  It’s being turned into a tourist destination for rich Khmer, Russians and more middle class Europeans - particularly the French.  They are determined it isn’t going to become a back-packers’ destination like Sihanoukville. 
I was feeling very groggy in the morning, so wasn’t able to go, and spent the day in bed. When Neil’s day trip turned into an overnight, late in the afternoon, I got up, feeling slightly better and took a taxi ride to Kep.  The journey was quite gruelling - 3 hours on dirt roads in the dark with pot-holes you could put an elephant in! About half way there it began to rain heavily, the second or third time it’s done that since we arrived in Cambodia, despite assurances that this is the dry season - it never rains.  But it does now.  Apparently the weather is all over the place here too.

Getting to Kep was worth it though.  Neil had booked into a guest house in the hills called the Veranda - one of the tourist fictions, but a very welcome treat for a rather bedraggled invalid!  For the price of a Travelodge in the UK, we had a suite - sitting/dining room with views out over the rainforest,

 a gigantic bedroom,

and a bathroom big enough for an entire Khmer family to live in.
Kep lived up to what we’d been told.  Lovely beaches with very few people on them.

Neil chilling out on the coast
 It’s clean, picturesque and the seafood cafe’s are safe to eat in - everything caught fresh and cooked immediately.  We had fried fish, crab and spicy prawns and it was fantastic.
One of the beaches in Kep with Rabbit Island on the horizon

Freshly caught crabs and fish

The cafe where we ate them
I didn’t want to come back, but we have to move with the family.   We’ve definitely marked Kep as an area we want to explore next time we come to Cambodia.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Breeding Seahorses

Things have looked up a bit since the last post.  We’ve moved into a small backpackers' guest house, run by an itinerant Irishman and his Cambodian wife, near the beaches where there are restaurants and (sadly!) lots of facilities for Europeans and where it’s much safer to walk around at night. (Don't you just hate being european and middle class!) The Panda costs only 18$US per night and has airconditioning (when the power supply permits) and wi-fi.  Renne cooks us nice Khmer food and Patrick does Neil’s eggs and bacon!

We’re also getting the opportunity to take the children down to the beach every afternoon. 
One of the things that Neil’s son is doing in Cambodia is surveying the seahorse population - there are some very rare species here, getting rarer by the minute, as they are in great demand for Chinese medicine.

Neil’s son, helped by a young marine biologist working for virtually no money, is trying to breed them in tanks so that they can be reintroduced into the wild.  It’s a very tricky business, as seahorses are not easy to breed in captivity.  They are shy, wild and unusual - virtually the only animal where the male gets pregnant!  Dad can pop out several hundred at a time, of which only 1 in a thousand makes it to adulthood.  They hope to do better in the tanks.

This is phytoplankton -  the bottom of the food chain for the seahorses - they live on tiny, live, shrimp who get fed on the plankton.

These are babies - but still recognisable.

These juveniles are doing very well and beginning to hold on to things.

This is a much more grown-up individual.  Sea horses take six months to reach sexual maturity - a long time to keep something as fragile as this alive in a tank.

Chinese prosperity seems to be the greatest threat to wildlife at the moment - the demand for rhino horn and dried sea-horse for medicine, as well as the taste for sharks’ fin soup (90% of the sharks in the ocean have already gone) and African ivory is increasing with the expansion of the Chinese economy.