Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Just for You: A New Christmas Short Story featuring Sophie Sayers – and It’s Free to Read Here!

As my Christmas present to you, here is a new free short story, available to read right here on my website, set in the world of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. It’s not a murder mystery, just a bit of feel-good fun that will transport you straight into Hector’s House, the Wendlebury Barrow village bookshop, as Sophie and friends get ready for the festive season.

I originally wrote this story at the request of Helen Hollick, to feature on her blog this month as part of her fun series of stories inspired by songs. To read the rest of the stories in her series, with a new tale by a different author every day in December, visit her Discovered Diamonds blog here. And here’s the link to where my story appeared there on 20th December. 

 

 

IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE CHRISTMAS

Hector’s House, the village bookshop at the heart of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries (Illustration by Thomas Shepherd at http://www.shepline.com)

“It doesn’t feel the least bit like Christmas,” I complained to Hector as I added another couple of books to our window display of festive gift ideas. The sky was a pure, clear forget-me-not blue, the air was still, and the sun beamed down fit to melt the fake snow on the inside of the glass.

“Just think of it as a green Christmas rather than a white one,” replied Hector, closing the door behind a departing customer. “After all, we’re giving a new lease of life to all that packaging material.”

Whenever either of us had a moment, we’d uncrumple the kraft paper that came wedged into our suppliers’ boxes to stop books getting damaged in transit and iron it on the stockroom table. Then we cut it into A2 sheets to make it more manageable and put them at the centre of the children’s play table in the bookshop’s tea room, alongside Christmas stencils and coloured felt tip pens. Hey presto – environmentally-friendly Christmas gift-wrap! Complimentary gift-wrapping of all books purchased in Advent encouraged locals to do their Christmas shopping at Hector’s House rather than in town or online.

“That’s child labour, that is,” declared Tommy, breezing in through the door as I stepped back from the shop window.

Although local teenager Tommy is a regular visitor to the bookshop, he comes not for the books but for the company. More often than not, he tries to blag a free milkshake. Occasionally, when flush from helping old Billy with odd jobs, he actually pays for one. We’d seen more of Tommy than usual this week, after their lucrative double-act hawking wheelbarrows of holly, ivy and mistletoe around the village.

Tommy sat down on one of the child-sized chairs at the play table opposite his little sister Sina. His gangly legs ranged either side of the table like a young giraffe’s.

“How much are they paying you to do that, Sina?”

He jabbed a grubby finger at her orderly rows of holly leaves. I thought he might put her off, but she was not so easily deterred, continuing to loop her green felt pen along the edge of the stencil.

“Nothing, and I don’t care, because it’s fun. Actually, I think we’re lucky Hector’s not charging us to do it.”

Hector cleared his throat.

“And it’s helping a good cause, Tommy. Two good causes, in fact: the environment, by finding a good use for paper that would otherwise go for recycling, and the church’s Christmas appeal.”

When Tommy looked dubious, I explained.

“Hector’s donating the amount he’d usually spend on gift wrap to the charity’s Christmas appeal.”

“And very grateful we are too,” said the vicar, emerging from the non-fiction section with a couple of hardbacks. He set them down on the trade counter and took out his wallet to pay Hector. “It’s astonishing how many people forget to bring money for the Christmas service collections, or who find themselves short of cash once they’ve all finished their Christmas shopping. Priorities, my dears, priorities…”

While Hector gift-wrapped each book, the vicar took a seat at one of the tearoom tables.

“Cappuccino, please, Sophie. I think I’ve earned it after hosting the village school’s visit to the church this afternoon.”

Sina laid down her green pen and beamed at the vicar.

“Yes, that was fun, especially getting a chocolate decoration each off the Christmas tree.”

Tommy pulled a sheet of paper towards him and picked up a black pen and a snowman stencil.

“You lucky duck! We never do anything like that at my school.”

Tommy had long since left the village primary school and now attended the nearest secondary school a few miles away.

“Chocolate wasn’t the prime purpose of the visit,” said the vicar. “I invited the children for a sneak preview of our crib.”

Each year, the vicar brings out an ancient set of china figurines to recreate the Bethlehem nativity scene. There’s also a charming model stable, lovingly crafted in elm by some parishioner long since departed to the churchyard.

He’s not daft, the vicar. Inviting the schoolchildren to view the crib is an effective way of enticing whole families to come to his Advent and Christmas services, persuaded by their children’s delight in the traditional tableau.

Sina folded her arms.

“Yes, but it was a con, because the baby Jesus wasn’t even there.”

Tommy drew a fierce expression on his first snowman, making it look like a chubby Halloween ghost. For a moment I thought he’d added two noses by mistake, then I realised they were fangs.

“Maybe today was the baby Jesus’s day for playgroup.”

He glanced up to check Sina’s reaction to his joke. Her expression was stern.

I hoped a young visitor hadn’t pocketed the baby Jesus during the school visit. I could understand the temptation. There may have been no room for him at the inn, but he’d fit perfectly in a Sylvanian Family playhouse.

The vicar sighed.

“The thing is, Sina, Jesus isn’t born until Christmas Day, so we don’t add him to the crib till then. Come to the morning service on the twenty-fifth and you’ll see him then.”

I was ashamed to have forgotten that detail, despite having been a Sunday School teacher since Easter.

As I set the vicar’s coffee on his table, Sina raised a forefinger to herald a bright idea.

“Why don’t you just put his scan picture in the crib in the meantime? That’s what people do who can’t wait to see their real baby. My auntie had a scan picture of her baby in a frame on the mantlepiece for months before it was born.”

“Who’s just been born?” asked Billy, entering the shop for the second time that day. “Christmas babies always follow a good spring.”

“The baby Jesus,” replied Sina. “Only he hasn’t been born yet. That’s the trouble.”

“You’re two thousand years behind the times, girlie,” said Billy, touching his cap to the vicar. “Don’t that pesky internet teach you anything useful?”

“Coffee, Billy?” asked the vicar.

“That’s very kind of you, vicar, but I’m here on a mission.”

“That should be your line, shouldn’t it, vicar?” said Hector, as he opened the till and tipped a bag of pound coins into the cash drawer. “What are you after, Billy?”

Billy untied his scarf. I was pleased to see he was wearing the one I’d made for him during the recent village craze for knitting.

“I’m after the right book for my old cousin Maurice.”

Hector had heard tales of Maurice before. “You mean the one you haven’t seen for twenty years?”

“Aye, that’s the one.” He wagged a finger at Hector. “You know I’ve been buying him a book here every Christmas, ever since you opened this shop of yours. So don’t you go implying I’m neglecting him. I wouldn’t do that, not with so few of my family left alive, God bless ‘em.”

Like Tommy, Billy rarely buys a book, treating Hector’s House like a social hub rather than a purveyor of fine reading materials. But that’s okay. The best bookshops are much more than the means of buying a book – they are at the heart of the community. That’s one of the reasons I love working here. Well, that and Hector. Soon after I started working here, Hector became my boyfriend as well as my boss.

Hector came out from behind the trade counter, rubbing his hands together.

“So, what’s it to be this year, Billy? If I remember rightly, last year it was a collection of nature notes for every day of the year. Lovely woodcut illustrations, I recall.”

“Yes, and what a fine idea of yours that was. If Maurice has been using it properly, he’ll have read a little bit each day and that’ll have made him think of me all year round.” Billy lifted his cap to scratch his head. “But I don’t know about this year, Hector. What can I give him?”

“Poor as I am,” returned the vicar, quick as a flash.

I smiled at the reference to my favourite Christmas carol, which I’ve loved since I first learned it at primary school.

Hector consulted the non-fiction shelves for a few moments, then pulled out an astronomy guide with a map of the night sky for every week of the new year and an anthology of 365 poems.

“It must be hard to live at a distance from your relatives,” I said gently.

My parents live in Inverness, hundreds of miles from our Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, so I thought I knew how he must feel.

“Aye,” said Billy, taking the books from Hector to examine. “Especially without a car. That’s the only reason I regrets never learning to drive.”

The local bus company runs services as far as Slate Green, our nearest market town, but that’s all. To travel further afield, you have to change at Slate Green, and even then you can’t get beyond a radius of about ten miles.

“I don’t want a heavy book, mind.” Billy weighed the two books up against each other, one in each hand. “Postage ain’t cheap these days.”

I was curious as to how far flung Billy’s relations were. I knew he’d lived in Wendlebury all his life, although his brother had left as a young man.

“So where exactly does this Maurice live, Billy?” I asked. “Is he still in the UK?”

I wondered whether he’d emigrated, like Hector’s twin brother Horace.

Billy passed both books back to Hector with a shake of his head.

“Slate Green.”

The vicar slammed his coffee cup down on his saucer.

“What?” he and I cried together.

I fetched a cloth to wipe up the vicar’s spillage.

“But you get the bus to Slate Green to go shopping at least once a week,” I pointed out. “How come you’ve never found the time to call on him?”

Billy shuffled his feet.

“He ain’t been to see me neither. It ain’t my fault. Besides, we always used to meet at our mums’ houses. His mum was my mum’s sister. His mum or mine took turns to cook Sunday dinner and we’d all sit down together, both families. But them days are long gone, and so are our mothers. We was both so upset after they died, just a few weeks apart, that we never really got round to making new arrangements. We missed them too much, see. It just wouldn’t have been the same without them.”

The vicar took the cloth from me to dry his saucer.

“That’s a great pity, Billy. I’ve seen this happen far too often after a bereavement, just when you need your family most.”

Tommy looked up from his sheet of gift wrap. His latest row of snowmen had the threatening air of Mafia hitmen.

“Don’t you like each other, then?”

Billy sat down opposite the vicar, his shoulders slumping.

“Bless you, no, boy. We was thick as thieves when we were your age. Always up to mischief in the village.”

“I wish I had a thief to be thick with.”

Poor Tommy. No other boys from his class lived in the village, one of the disadvantages of being raised in a small rural community.

“We had no end of make-believe games, neither – pirates, cowboys, Robin Hood.”

The vicar set down the cloth and reached across to rest his hand on the frayed cuff of Billy’s ancient tweed jacket.

“Then I think this Christmas you should start making up for lost time. I’ll run you down to see him any time you like. You have only to ask.”

Billy’s face softened. “Well, if Hector would just buck his ideas up about the right present…”

Suddenly Hector’s face lit up.

“I know just the thing!”

And with that he dashed out of the shop.

The others looked puzzled at his unexpected departure, but when I heard Hector opening the front door to his flat at the side of the shop and running up two flights of stairs to his top floor, I knew what he was about.

Moments later, he reappeared in the shop doorway, breathless and triumphant, holding up a vintage hardback copy of Treasure Island. A colour plate on the cover showed a fierce-looking Long John Silver, complete with wooden leg, crutch and parrot.

Billy’s mouth fell open.

“Ah, now that’s what I call a book.”

When Hector put it into his hands, he gazed at it with the rapture of a starving man reading a gourmet menu.

I came out from behind the tearoom counter to appeal to the children.

“Now, who wants to give Billy their paper to wrap his cousin’s present in?”

To my surprise, Sina had laid aside her holly leaves unfinished, and was now scribbling in black pencil on a small square of plain white paper.

“I’m afraid it’ll have to be Tommy’s snowmen, Billy.”

Billy peered at Tommy’s handiwork.

“They’ll do very nicely, thank you, Tom.”

He took the paper to the trade counter for Hector to do the honours. When the vicar drained his coffee cup and got to his feet, I realised he was planning to drive Billy to see Maurice straight away, before he could change his mind.

“Just a minute, vicar,” cried Sina, laying down her pencil and pushing back her chair. “Here, I’ve made this for you. I know how much you’re looking forward to Christmas and the baby Jesus and stuff, so here’s something to keep you going.“

The vicar took the square of paper from her hand and turned it this way and that, narrowing his eyes.

“Ah, I see. It makes sense now I’ve spotted the halo.”

When he showed it to me, I too was at first puzzled by the array of fuzzy, broken lines, with just a dark kidney-shaped blob at the centre. Then it clicked.

“Oh yes, of course! Baby Jesus’s scan photo! Well done, Sina. Very imaginative.”

Sina beamed and went back to colouring in her holly leaves, humming contentedly.

As the vicar escorted Billy, wrapped gift under his arm, out of the bookshop and into his car, I went to stand behind Hector at the trade counter, reading over his shoulder. He was logging Billy’s purchase in the sales ledger he keeps for the second-hand book collection stored in his flat.

“You know what, Hector?” I said, draping my arms over his shoulders and clasping my hands on his chest. “Suddenly it’s starting to feel like Christmas after all.”

Hector closed the ledger and laid his hands gently over mine.

“So it is. Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”


cover of Murder in the Manger
When the village nativity play goes wrong…

Like to read more about Christmas in Wendlebury Barrow? Try the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder in the Manger, a gentle festive mystery with a touch of seasonal romance.

The ebook is now available to order from all major ebook stores, and the paperback can be ordered from Amazon or from your local bookshop.

And if you’ve not yet tried the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, find out about the whole series here on my website.

Posted in Events, Personal life

Coining It – Some Thoughts about Commemorative British Coins and Pound Notes

Sherlock Holmes 50p coin
My latest collectible 50p coin features Sherlock Holmes

My column for the November 2019 issue of Hawkesbury Parish News was sparked by reading an article in the paper about the new design for the British sterling £20 note, which will be launched into circulation on the pleasingly appropriate date of 20/2/2020.

I bet I’m not the only one in the parish stealthily collecting commemorative British coins.

Every time I pay by cash, I check my change for these tiny works of art in which I take a childlike pleasure. My latest acquisition is a Sherlock Holmes 50p, an odd bedfellow for Paddington Bear, Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny in my collection, but a very welcome one.

array of Beatrix Potter, Paddington Bear and Sherlock Holmes 50p coins
Spot the odd one out…

If you’re looking for something to collect, these special coins are a good choice:

  • They’re affordable
  • They retain their face value
  • You might even profit from selling rarer ones on eBay

If you hit hard times, simply return them to circulation (ie spend them!) and put a smile on the face of another enthusiast.

Not that I plan to do that with mine. I’ve always regretted as a child spending my collection of old pennies, after acquiring one for nearly every year that they’d been minted.

Good on Paper

Paper money, with its larger canvas, attracts public debate with every new design. The latest note to get a new look is the £20, with a portrait of Turner and his most famous painting, The Fighting Temeraire.

The side of the £20 note showing Turner and his painting of The Fighting Temeraire

The side of the new £20 note showing the Queen, featured on all British banknotes

Although celebrating a ship that played a significant role in the Battle of Trafalgar, the picture is tinged with sadness, as it shows the ship being towed away for scrap by newfangled steam tugs. The golden age of sail is over, and the nation is entering a period of radical change.  As I write, we’re poised on the brink of Brexit: the end of another era. I wonder whether that’s the real reason the Bank of England’s chose this design?

Like to know more about the new £20 note?
Click here for an interesting article on the Bank of England‘s website.

Like to read more of my columns from the Hawkesbury Parish News?
Click here to find out about All Part of the Charm, my published collection of these columns. 

Cover of All Part of the Charm
“These are little vignettes of village life and what it is to be human that make you just want to pack up and move there straight away.” – Lynne Pardoe
Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Lest We Forget: Remembrance Day 2019

The Hawkesbury Upton village community prepares to mark Remembrance Day at the war memorial on The Plain

Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night may be lively and fun, but what means much more to me than either of these is the quieter, more dignified occasion of Remembrance Day just a few days later.

On the closest Sunday to Armistice Day (11th November), in our corner of the Cotswolds, we gather by the Village Hall to begin a group procession to the war memorial on the Plain ( our equivalent to a village green). There prayers are said, hymns are sung, and a rendition of the Last Post precedes our minute’s silence. It is a simple and moving ceremony that unites the community in honouring our war dead.

photo of Alice in Wonderland scarecrow wearing a knitted poppy
Once the frivolity of Halloween was over, my Alice in Wonderland scarecrow, on the Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail, donned a hand-knitted poppy as  her mark of respect

Festival of Remembrance

On the previous Friday, a special Festival of Remembrance is held in the parish church of St Mary sharing music, poetry and readings. The church is decorated by Linda Fairney with hundreds of knitted and crocheted poppies and lit withe dozens of candles. Transparent perspex figures representing lost local servicemen sit on the pews among the congregation.

A particularly moving component of the service is the commemoration of each man lost in the wars. This is delivered by churchwarden and chair of the Friends of St Mary’s, Air Marshall Sir Ian Macfadyen KCVO, CB, OBE, FRAeS , and Simon Bendry, Programme Director for the UCL Institute of Education’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, who was born and raised in the village.

Ian announces each man’s name, then Simon recounts a brief biography – where each man lived and worked in the village before the war, a summary of his war record, how he died, and how the news of his loss was conveyed to his wife or mother. As each name is announced, a child from the 1st Hawkesbury Guides lays a poppy on a cross on the altar steps to commemorate the life lost.

Many of the surnames on the war memorial are still present in the village, generations later. It is a sobering reminder that war affects us all, no matter how far from the front line.

Simon Bendry, who grew up in the village, has written a book about all those remembered on the war memorial – a very special local record for our community.

An Outpouring of Poppies

I am glad this year to see that so many communities are continuing the practice established for the WWI centenary of making elaborate public installations of knitted or crocheted (and therefore weatherproof) poppies. Some people were concerned that after the centenary year was over, the public might lose interest in the occasion, but there are no signs of that around here.

I’ve also seen impressive displays in unexpected places, such as this banner, its message spelled out in knitted poppies, in the atrium of Southmead Hospital in Bristol, where I went to an appointment on Wednesday.

 

banner on wall with "we will remember them" spelled out in knitted poppies
In the atrium of Southmead Hospital

My Own Small Tribute

When so much of the world seems in turmoil, and anxieties are high, to me it seems more important than ever to come together as a community to espouse common values. That’s why in my novel Murder in the Manger, in which the story begins on 6th November, I took pains to include a similar ceremony in my fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, this time held in the village school and involving all ages. (Simon Bendry kindly read it for me before publication to make sure it was appropriate.) In Chapter 14, entitled “We Can Be Heroes”, Carol, the village shopkeeper says “Just because we’re a little village doesn’t mean we can’t produce heroes.” That is my personal and lasting tribute to the heroic young men from so many villages like ours who gave their tomorrows for our todays. We will remember them.

 

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Casting On for Autumn

My column from the October 2019 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser was all about knitting

To read the October issue in full, please click the photo

Winning first prize in the knitting category at a village show has ignited my winter addiction to knitting a little earlier than usual. It generally kicks in as the clocks go back, the evenings become long and dark, and any excuse will do to spend more time in my armchair by the fire.

Knitting gives me the feeling of doing something constructive while just sitting down and having a rest. The rhythmic, repetitive movements of the needles and yarn quickly send me into a pleasant meditative state, especially now I’ve swapped old-fashioned steel and plastic needles and artificial yarns for smooth bamboo and natural fibres warm and soft against my hands.

Every stitch feels like a caress.

Childhood Pattern

I learned to knit at the age of five, and under my mother’s coaching quickly learned to knit and read simultaneously. Before long, I rose to the dizzy heights of having my own named box in the backroom of Rema’s, our local wool shop. Here were stored the requisite number of balls for your current project, and you’d buy them one at a time as it progressed – effectively buying a sweater on the instalment plan.

In those days, everyone knitted because home-made jumpers were significantly cheaper than shop-bought ones. The downside was the slower speed of delivery. When I was ten, I grew faster than the jaunty orange, green and brown striped sweater on my needles. On completion, I had to keep pulling on the sleeves to make them reach my wrists.

Later, I knitted countless sweaters for boyfriends. At university I knitted the same Fair Isle pullover in different colourways for two different boys in quick succession. (I must have been keen.)

My prize-winning tea cosy, knitted for this year’s village show

Downsizing for Charity

These days I prefer to make small items for charities and have found enough outlets to keep my needles busy through the winter. The most innovative is a Canadian project to provide small knitted dolls instead of styrofoam chips in humanitarian medical aid boxes. Twiddlemuffs are another great idea: knitted hand muffs adorned with buttons, beads and other decorations to comfort people with dementia.

But for now I’m keeping it simple, making blanket squares to be taken to India at half term by pupils of Westonbirt School. (Frankenstein blankets, as my friend Charlotte calls them, for obvious reasons!) My teenage daughter is doing the same for Syrian refugees. It’s humbling to be able to help others while, with our pretty yarns and silky-smooth needles, we’re just indulging ourselves in a soothing hobby.

But my prize-winning knitted tea cosy, with its thirty-plus individually knitted flowers and leaves, all sewn on by hand, isn’t going anywhere. Well, they do say charity begins at home.


Coming Soon

This episode has inspired me to write a new Sophie Sayers novella centred around knitting – look out next year for my first collection of novellas featuring Sophie and friends, working title Tales from Wendlebury Barrow. In the meantime, if you’d like to read the first Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks, you can do so for free by joining my Readers’ Club mailing list via the form below.

Join My Mailing List & Receive a Free Ebook

To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

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Posted in Events, Personal life

A Not So Indian Summer

a tree with leaves turned the colours of flame
Autumn colour at Westonbirt Arboretum, just down the road from me

My column from the October 2019 Hawkesbury Parish News

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that autumn begins the day after the Hawkesbury Village Show. This year cooler autumn weather arrived right on cue on 1st September. A couple of weeks later, with chestnut leaves already starting to turn bronze as I write this column, we’re basking in an ‘Indian summer’.

Or so I thought, until I decided to investigate what actual Indian summers are like.

It turns out they’re nothing like this at all. Having never been to India, I had no idea that their summers can bring winds so strong as to be fatal and thunderstorms accompanied by hailstorms. And once they’re over, there’s a four-month monsoon season to look forward to.

It turns out that what we’ve been having is a Native American summer.

Nineteenth century settlers coined the phrase ‘Indian summer’ to describe the unseasonably warm, dry spells in the fall which the indigenous people (termed Red Indians by European immigrants) favoured for hunting.

Outside of the English language, different terms are used for this phenomenon. Germans called it ‘Altweibersommer’ which means ‘old wives’ summer’, as do Eastern Europeans in their own languages. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because the elderly find a less aggressive heat of a good autumn easier to bear than high summer?

The concept can also be used metaphorically. In the English translation of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago, the term Indian summer is used to describe the run-up to the October Revolution: the calm before the storm.

Given the current political climate, I prefer a more soothing philosophy. This autumn, whatever the weather may bring, I’ll be bearing in mind that optimistic closing line from Shelley’s Ode to Autumn: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Let’s hope so.


PS For a more seasonal read for October, you might like to try the second in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Trick or Murder?, in which a village finds itself divided by a conflict between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night. Read the first chapter here for free.


Join My Mailing List & Receive a Free Ebook

To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

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