Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Let There Be Fairy Lights!

In the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I reminisced about one of my favourite memories from my childhood Christmases.

One of my favourite childhood Christmas memories is walking home in the dark after dinner at my maternal grandmother’s house. Even on the coldest night, counting the Christmas trees in people’s front windows gave us an inner glow as we passed by.

In those days, the Christmas tree was the only thing we’d decorate with fairy lights. Many homes in our London suburb had pay-as-you-go electricity meters, which had to be fed with shillings to maintain the supply, so adding to the electrical load was not a great idea.

It was a more frugal age in other ways too. These days I think nothing of buying new fairy lights each Christmas. Back then, if your string of lights stopped working, you just went to Woolworths to buy a new bulb. That is, after you’d worked out which bulb was the dud causing the string to short.

This laborious task required taking out each bulb in turn and turning the mains power switch off and again every time, until you’d solved the mystery. (We may not have been great at recycling in those days, but we knew how to make do and mend – if your electric kettle packed up, you just replaced the element.)

There were also stricter rules about when to put up your decorations: 1st December at the earliest. In any case, you’d be unlikely to find them in the shops until after Guy Fawkes’ Night on 5th November. Now I switch on the fairy lights in my front garden immediately after Armistice Day (11th November).

As the nights get longer and winter chills set in, lighting up the darkness lifts my spirits.

Christmas tree lights in a window
(Photo by Kaleb Tapp via Unsplash)

This year, we can’t gather in Hawkesbury High Street for our annual community switching-on ceremony – a tradition I love so much that I’ve borrowed it in my festive novel, Murder in the Manger. (You can read that extract at the end of this post.) So I hope that instead there’ll be more fairy lights than ever popping up around the village.

To me fairy lights feel like symbols of hope, with the same promise that rainbows offer the rest of the year. I like to think that if Noah had had fairy lights, he’d have lit up the ark as the flood waters began to subside.

Whatever you choose to do about fairy lights this December, I wish you a bright and cosy Christmas – and a New Year that can only be better than this one!


Extract from Murder in the Manger, the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery

Chapter 34    Lights!

images of ebook and paperback
Available in paperback and ebook

As I stood outside The Bluebird in the dark, trying to spot Hector amongst the crowd, a stocky figure in a duffle coat sidled up to me. It wore a bobble hat covered with mistletoe, topped with an old bicycle lamp tied on with string. In its hand was a pint glass spilling over with mulled wine. Its growly voice startled me.

“Good evening, girlie.”

It was Billy. He pointed to his hat.

“Got a Christmas kiss for your old friend tonight?”

To my relief, at that precise moment Hector came jostling through the crowd, wearing an ancient deerstalker and a thick stripy scarf over a long overcoat. I was beginning to wonder whether I’d missed the notice for fancy dress to be worn.

“Do I detect unrest?” was his greeting to me.

I grinned.

“Nice hat, Sherlock.”

He touched it appreciatively.

“I’ve had it since I was a teenager. It came from my parents’ antique shop. It’s so battered that I only bring it out in the dark when you can’t see the moth holes. But I’m very attached to it.”

“Can I be your Dr Watson?”

“Wouldn’t you rather be Mrs Hudson? You do make a fine cup of tea.”

I batted his arm for teasing me, but before I could protest further, a slight figure dressed entirely in black bowled up to join us, a sinister balaclava covering all of its face but the eyes. Alarmed, I took a step back, but Hector was not worried.

“Hello, Tommy.”

Tommy pulled off the balaclava and stuffed it crossly into his pocket.

“How did you know it was me?”

Hector tapped his deerstalker. “Sherlock Holmes says you can never disguise a back.”

“But this is my front.”

Tommy stomped off, pulling his video camera out of his other pocket as he went. I surveyed the crowd as it absorbed him.

“Gosh, I’d forgotten quite how many people live here.”

I reached into my coat pocket to pull out the pile of invitations to the Wendlebury Writers’ book launch. The lighting-up ceremony provided the perfect opportunity to distribute them to villagers without having to go door-to-door. I wondered where to start.

“I suppose these are all villagers.”

Hector nodded.

“Most of them, as far as I can tell, although I suspect a few usually come up from Slate Green to get their hands on some free mulled wine. Word gets around about such things.” He pulled his scarf a little closer around his neck, and I looped my arm through his to snuggle closer.

“I’m surprised how many villagers I know now. And it’s nice to no longer be the newest person in town. I can see at least one person who wasn’t even born when I moved into my cottage.”

I pointed to a tiny baby in the arms of a slight lone female standing on the edge of the crowd. The mother, hood up, head bowed, was completely engrossed in her baby’s company, holding its hands and talking to it, as if there was no-one else around. I wondered whether she was as much a newcomer to the village as the baby. Perhaps she was painfully shy. There was no father in evidence, and of all the crowd, she seemed to be the only one not mingling with others.

“She looks a bit lonely and awkward,” I said. “I don’t know who she is, but there’s something familiar about her. Why does she remind me of Billy? No, hang on, she’s more like Carol, only a young, pretty version.”

Hector laughed. “Everyone looks the same on a dark night like this, all bundled up against the cold. It’s easier to recognise people in their Halloween outfits.”

He turned around to check her out, and gazed at the woman for so long that I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t think she was that good-looking.

“Actually I don’t know who she is either,” he said at last. “I wonder whether she’s a traveller? They congregate down on Slate Common now and again, until the council gets the police to move them on. I hadn’t heard they were back.”

I wanted him to return his attention to me.

“So what happens now?” I asked.

“I’ll show you.”

He took my hand and led me through the crowd to a trestle table outside the pub, where Donald and his wife were busy ladling mulled wine into polystyrene cups.

“First, we all have some of this, on the house.” He picked up two full cups and handed one to me. “Then we all assemble round the Christmas tree on the green, where the youngest child in the school and the oldest person in the village do the ceremonial switching on of the tree lights. It’s a big honour.”

I thought about this for a moment.

“Has anyone ever hung around long enough to have done both?” I asked.

“Good question, Sophie. If you ask Bella, as the parish clerk, she’ll be able to look it up in the council archives and tell you.”

As they collected their mulled wine, people began to surge away from the pub towards the green. Nobody took the most direct route, but wove in and out as they talked to each other. The sight put me in mind of a murmuration of starlings at dusk.

“Has anyone ever been the oldest person in the village for more than a year?” I asked. “I don’t think I’d fancy being the chosen one. It would feel like stepping to the front of the queue for the village graveyard.”

Hector steered us expertly into a place at the inner edge of the throng, now arranging itself in a circle around the green. “I think the record was five times for one old lady when I was a child. I was starting to think she was immortal, some kind of witch. She even survived the lights fusing the fifth time she switched them on.”

“Maybe the power surge recharged her batteries.”

Wondering who would be the oldest and youngest this year, I was surprised when Billy stepped forward, along with a very small boy in a snowsuit and Thomas the Tank Engine wellies.

“I thought Joshua was older than Billy?” I said in a low voice to Hector as a hush fell over the crowd.

“Yes, but he’s not up to this kind of outing at night. Didn’t you read his message in the parish magazine delegating his duty to Billy?”

I chided myself for still not reading it from cover to cover, as it was the highest authority on village news.

The Reverend Murray stepped into the centre of the circle, with Mrs Murray, neat and smiling, at his side. Several people in the front row turned torches on him, during his brief speech of welcome, thanking The Bluebird for its hospitality and the team of dads who had put up the tree and the lights.

His words fell away in the cold night air, punctuated by puffs of vapour emanating from his mouth. When he stopped speaking, everyone clapped, and those who’d come early to the mulled wine whooped and cheered.

When the shouting died down to a respectful silence, the vicar pronounced a formal blessing on the ceremony and made a sign of the cross in the direction of the Christmas tree.

Finally, he beckoned to Billy and the little boy to step up to a large metal box at the foot of the tree. He lifted the lid to reveal a big red handle. I moved closer to Hector.

Billy reached first to the little boy, holding out his hand.

“Come along, Davy, you hold on to old Billy’s hand, and we’ll do this together.”

The little boy shook his head and backed away a step or two. Perhaps the sight of the red handle reminded him of the bomb detonator so often featured in cartoons.

Billy shrugged. “Suit yourself, then.” I heard his knees crack as he bent down to reach the handle. He grabbed it, then stood stock still, waiting, familiar with the drill after witnessing the process for scores of years.

“Torches off now, folks, please!” said Mr Murray. “Now let’s have the countdown. Five, four, three…”

At zero, there was a split second of expectant hush. Then BANG! But the Christmas tree lights remained dark.


cover of Murder in the Manger

 

 Like to read the rest of the novel?

Click the link below to order it in your preferred format 

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Although this is the third in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, it can be read as a standalone novel and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read the first two – but I hope you’ll want to, as well as the three books after this one! Now back to writing the seventh in the series, Murder Lost and Found

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

The Consolation of Gardening

In my latest column for the Tetbury Advertiser, I was drawing on memories of a visit to Highgrove Gardens on a glorious summer’s day and sharing how it inspired me to start a new feature in my own garden.

Photo at Highgrove of Debbie, her dad and her sister
Memories of a delightful family outing to Highgrove Gardens with my dad and my sister back in September – in the background is Highgrove House, Prince Charles’s country seat, just a few miles down the road from my rather humbler Cotswold cottage home (Photo copyright Paul Burns)

My recent visit to Highgrove to admire HRH’s numerous quirky gardens-within-a-garden inspired me to start a new feature in my own plot. I christened it my Circle of Life Garden, as it’s designed to provide perspective and reassurance in a time when we are all a little more conscious than usual of our mortality. In lighter moments, I call it my Pull Yourself Together Patch or the Get a Grip Garden, but the principle remains the same.

My Circle of Life Garden

Photo of my circle of life gardenAt the centre of the feature is a small buddha statue that a neighbour wanted shot of. Recycling or reincarnation? Either way, it seemed an appropriate starting point.

On each side of the buddha are ferns, chosen to represent prehistory. According to the Eden Project, ferns have been around for 350 million years. Predating dinosaurs, they were among the first land-dwelling plants to create the oxygen essential for the origins of man. What’s not to love about ferns?

Representing more recent history, between the buddha and the ferns I’ve laid out all the fragments of china and glass that my husband has unearthed while digging the garden. No, they’re not Roman relics, but refuse buried by the previous occupants of my Victorian cottage before the invention of the council dustcart.

Symbolising the present are wallflowers given to me by my father a couple of weeks ago and a cyclamen my sister brought me when she came to lunch last week.

Looking to the future, snowdrops and crocus bulbs planted beneath a bare patch of earth in front of the buddha are scheduled to emerge next spring.

image of writing hut with circle of life garden to the right
My Circle of Life garden is just next to my writing hut

All of these features are set against a backdrop of rotting logs, the remains of a plum tree that died of old age last year. As the logs decay, they are giving new life to bugs and beetles, which in turn feed small wild mammals and birds, and so the food chain goes on.

 

Thus in a compact space just a few feet wide, my Circle of Life Garden celebrates the past and the present and promises hope for the future. It’s certainly cheered me up.

There’s only one missing piece of the jigsaw: I’m still searching for a truly immortal plant. Japanese knotweed need not apply.


In Other News

In all of my novels, gardens feature prominently, whether in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, where Sophie Sayers nurtures the garden she’s inherited from her late great aunt, or at St Bride’s School nearby, where Gemma Lamb finds peace and solitude in the extensive school landscape.

cover of The Clutch of Eggs
A fun quick read that kicks off in Sophie Sayers’ garden…

I’ve just published a new story, The Clutch of Eggs, that starts off with an episode in Sophie’s garden, when her cat Blossom brings her in a wild bird’s egg, unleashing a comical chain of events that ends up putting Wendlebury Barrow on the map for all the wrong reasons.

A quick read (a third the length of one of my novels) in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, features all the regular characters from the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, as well as some engaging new ones, including a handsome tourist, a trio of birdwatching brothers, and an affectionate dachshund named Bunty.

The Clutch of Eggs is now available as a a postcard-sized paperback (6″ x 4″) and in all the popular ebook formats. You’ll find the buying links for both below.

In the meantime, here’s the opening chapter to whet your appetite.


CHAPTER 1 – The Foundling Egg

“Look at this, Hector!”

I held out my hand to reveal what I’d carried so carefully all the way from my cottage to Hector’s House, the village bookshop.

Instead of giving me my usual morning hug before flipping the door sign to “open”, Hector (my boyfriend as well as my boss) stood back in awe of the object’s fragility.

“What’s that, your breakfast? It’s a bit on the small side. You’re not on a diet, are you?”

I stroked the pristine white shell with my fingertip.

“No, silly, it’s a bird’s egg. What sort of monster do you take me for? I don’t eat birds’ eggs for breakfast. Apart from hens’ eggs, I mean.”

I was glad I’d had toast that morning instead.

“That’s no hen’s egg. It’s far too small. Did you get it from the village shop? I’d heard Carol had started stocking quails’ eggs, but I thought they were speckled.”

“Yes, she has, and they are. She’s thrilled to have something to put on her Q shelf at last.” Carol organises her stock alphabetically to make things easier to find. “But I’ve no idea what sort of bird laid this egg.”

Hector slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the key to his flat above the bookshop.

“I’ll fetch the vintage Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs from my curiosities collection upstairs. That’ll help us identify it.”

He turned the door sign to “open” before dashing outside and disappearing round the corner of the shop.

“What if it’s not a vintage bird?” I called after him, but his footsteps were already pounding up the stairs to his flat.

I like to tease Hector about the funny old books that fill his spare bedroom. He’s never read most of them, he just likes the look and feel of them. I can’t understand why he doesn’t add a second-hand department to the shop. He’d have more than enough stock, and it would provide a useful source of extra income for the business. We’re always looking for new income streams. It’s not easy keeping a rural bookshop in profit.

The sun was shining brightly now, so, still cradling the egg with my spare hand, I propped the door open with our cast-iron doorstop, which is shaped like a pile of old books. The fresh spring air was full of the scent of new leaves, the shrubs and trees along the high street acid green with new growth. I lingered on the threshold for a deep breath before going back inside, where I gently set my egg on the trade counter to await Hector’s verdict. To make sure it wouldn’t roll away and fall on the floor, I surrounded it with a little wall of stationery.

As Hector’s footsteps thundered back down the stairs, I headed for the tearoom, which is my domain, and fired up the coffee machine. We always start our working day with a caffeine fix. The smell of fresh coffee helps lure our first customers in off the street, too – mums returning from the school run.

Hector strode back into the shop brandishing a small hardback with a plain tan cover. Taking his usual seat at the trade counter, he started to flick through its yellowing pages. He didn’t look up when I set down in front of him a tiny espresso cup branded with The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. My wit was wasted on him. To be fair, the book he was reading was engrossing. On almost every page there was a precise and beautiful watercolour illustration of a bird’s egg, each one different.

“Surprisingly few eggs seem to be plain white like yours. Or the same shape.”

I gazed at the egg nestling in its pen of pens.

“Surely it’s just egg-shaped? Hence the expression.”

He held the book up to show me.

“This one’s the right colour, but it’s longer and thinner than your egg, while this one is more rounded.” He paused at the swift’s page. “The swift’s is plain white, but it’s too long.”

“Isn’t it too early for a swift, anyway?”

“Yes, you’re right. They won’t arrive for another week or two yet.” He flicked through a few more pages. The lesser-spotted woodpecker lays small white eggs the right shape, but I doubt you’ve got a woodpecker in your garden. They’re a bit shy and more of a forest dweller. Besides, it says here they don’t start laying till May.” He looked up from the book. “You did find this egg in your garden, didn’t you?”

I beamed with pride.

“I didn’t. Blossom did. She brought it in to me this morning. Isn’t she clever?” Blossom is my kitten. Hector’s not keen on cats, but I thought this show of skill might raise her in his estimation. “Do you realise how gentle Blossom must have been to pick up something as fragile as an egg in her mouth without breaking it? To carry it all the way from wherever she found it to my kitchen? I think she meant it as a present for me.”

Hector moved the book closer to his eyes. The print was tiny. Encouraged by his silence, I continued.

“At first, I thought she’d squashed her ping-pong ball, but no. It’s as perfect an egg as you’ll find anywhere in nature.”

Hector harrumphed. “I just hope Blossom didn’t despatch the mother bird while she was at her nest.” He shot me a mournful look. “Although that would cut short the mother’s distress at losing her egg.”

A wave of vicarious guilt swept over me.

“There aren’t any nests in my garden,” I began, despite realising I hadn’t actually checked. Might nests be hidden among the fresh spring foliage? My dense evergreens would also provide perfect camouflage.

Our conversation was cut short by a hum of chatter approaching from the direction of the school, so Hector set down the book to continue his investigations later.

A chilly breeze struck up as the school run-mums arrived. Although reluctant to shut out the spring, I closed the door behind them.

It was only when I was starting to serve their coffee that I realised Hector hadn’t given me my morning hug.


Like to know what happens next? Here are the buying links again: 

As ever, if you read and enjoy this book, I would really appreciate it if you take a moment to leave a sentence or two on the website where you bought it saying why you liked it. Good reviews encourage other readers to buy my books! 

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

A Lockdown Date with Kittens

photo of two kittens on fleecy blanket
Two sources of comfort in lockdown: kittens & the Hawkesbury Parish News

During lockdown, our community magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, has heroically continued to publish, thanks to its dedicated team of volunteers writing, editing, printing and distributing it about the village.

In the absence of news of events, which usually makes up a large part of its content, the editor, Colin Dixon, has solicited plenty of new and interesting editorial to fill the space, including personal lockdown diaries by local residents.

Although many of the services advertised in its pages are suspended during lockdown, these companies are continuing to support the magazine, as they book and pay for a year’s advertising each January. They deserve our support in return when normal life returns.

In these strange times, it is comforting to see the Hawkesbury Parish News drop through our letterbox each month, giving some semblance of normality and regularity to the disrupted pattern of life in the time of Covid-19. A huge thank you to the whole team for your continuing service to our community.

Now here’s the column that I wrote for the June issue. 

 

Photo of cat gazing into fish tank
Bertie enjoys cat television

My top tip for lockdown entertainment is to acquire a pair of kittens.

We did this only by chance, collecting Bingo and Bertie (named after P G Wodehouse characters) at nine weeks old, two days before lockdown.

21st March seemed a particularly auspicious day for us to bring them home. Not only is it the Spring Solstice, but it was also my parents’ 67th wedding anniversary.

Reading the adoption paperwork when we got home, I was astonished to find that they were also born on my birthday, January 18th – the same day that our older cat Dorothy moved in. Dorothy was a stray found by neighbours (the Rounds) in their garage on a school snow day. She was personally delivered by another neighbour, Roland Starling, when I joked on Facebook that she could be my birthday present – that’ll teach me to be flippant! Best birthday present ever, though!

Dorothy, my personal assistant, reporting for duty at my writing desk
Photo of cat with head in mug of tea
A nice cup of tea always goes done well. (Bertie likes to search for teabags and lift them out with his paw.)

As Dorothy did when she first came to live with us, the kittens have provided daily cheer and distraction. The timing of their arrival has meant that we have spent as much time as possible bonding with them, and they settled very quickly.

Much as we love the kittens, my daughter has already declared that she is looking forward to seeing how they turn out when they’re full grown. I know just what she means. When she was born 17 years ago, I worried that I might be sad when she grew up. I soon realised that at each stage of development, I loved her even more.

Of course, kittens are for life, not just for lockdown, but I’m glad to have at least this one positive souvenir of these challenging times.


We are very grateful to the Cats’ Protection League for caring for our kittens until they were old enough to leave their mother. Their loving care gave Bertie and Bingo a wonderful start, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that they are such affectionate, good-natured creatures now.


Further reading inspired by cats: “Springtime for Murder”

cover of Springtime for MurderDon’t worry, no cats come to any harm in this book!

In the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, I wanted to write about cats and so I introduced some new characters – an elderly neighbour, Bunny Carter, who has a house full of cats, and an irritating do-gooder who keeps trying to foist more cats upon her while also trying to persuade her to leave her fortune to the local cat charity (not a bit like the wonderful Cats’ Protection League, I hasten to add!)

Sophie, as a cat person like me, is easily persuaded to adopt a black kitten, whom she names Blossom, a name nominated by my friend Sue, and not Beelzebub, which was suggested by my friend John, whom I suspect is more of a dog lover! Unfortunately Sophie discovers too late that Hector, her boss and her boyfriend, is a dog lover too…

Full of fun about cats and cat-lovers, and featuring the usual banter between the regular cast of characters in this series, this story is underpinned by serious thoughts about family relationships and the importance of solving family feuds before it’s too late. (Bunny, who earned her nickname by producing so many children in her younger days, has fallen out with all of her offspring.)

The book is available as both a paperback and an ebook, and makes a relaxing escapist read at any time of year.

Click here to order the paperback

Click here to order the ebook from your favourite ebook retailer

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel

Nescafe in Albania

A nostalgic travel piece about coffee in Greece & Albania

image of a glass of iced coffee with a copy of Murder Your Darlings against a blue cotton sarong
The backdrop is the sarong I bought in Kefalonia on my first trip, patterned with the indigenous turtles. A similar sarong is one of the clues in my Greek island mystery, “Murder Your Darlings”.

During lockdown, I’m drinking much more coffee courtesy of my Nespresso machine, which I continue to love, despite a Times journalist recently referring to it as “the Fisher Price of coffee makers”. (Besides, what’s not to love about Fisher Price, maker of the iconic chunky toy telephone?)

Yesterday, during an afternoon in which my garden was as hot as a Greek island, I forgot to collect a cup from the machine until it was cold. Not wanting to waste the coffee capsule, I decided to recreate the iced coffee that I used to enjoy on holiday in Greece – or café frappé, as they call it there. This refreshing long drink is not to be confused with the tiny cups of stronger stuff supped by backgammon players in the local kafenio.

With echoes of Proust‘s madeleine, the first sip took me back to the Greek islands where I spent a lot of time in the early Noughties, frequenting touristy tavernas and bars as we island-hopped around Zakynthos, Kefalonia, Ithaca, Lefkas, Corfu, and more.

More recently, spending an idyllic week at a writers’ retreat on Ithaca, run Jessica Bell at the delightful Hotel Nostos (which I highly recommend, by the way, once lockdown is over), café frappés sustained us through our daily writing sessions. (I’ll be writing more about that experience in a later post.)

A Durrell Pilgrimage

But my favourite coffee-related memory relates to an earlier stay in Corfu. When my daughter Laura was three, I booked a Durrell-inspired pilgrimage to the island setting of Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals, staying in Kalamis, the village in which his brother Lawrence lived and wrote. I’d had this ambition since first reading the book at the age of 12.

I hadn’t realised until I travelled to Corfu that just a few miles across the water lay Albania, a closed communist country which had somehow managed to fall out with the entire Eastern European bloc, leaving China as its only trading ally. Its repressive regime was notorious, and many of its citizens tried to flee Albania for Greece in search of a better life. This was illegal in Albania and any would-be migrants faced harsh punishment.

The only Albanian national I’d ever met was in Lefkas, where we used to have a small share in a small sailing yacht. Commonly known as Albanian George, he was a former circus performer who ran the Ola Kala Bar on the main drag in Nidri. He’d lure in tourists by doing handstands on the tables and riding through his taverna on a unicycle. We liked him very much.

My latest novel will transport you to the beautiful Greek islands of the Ionian without leaving your armchair

From Corfu to Albania

When in Corfu Town I spotted a boat running day trips to Albania, I couldn’t resist. I had assumed its borders were closed to tourists, so snapped up the chance to visit. The journey to the Albanian harbour of Saranda was only a few miles, but was topped and tailed with strict immigration procedures. The tight control continued when we reached our destination. It became clear that our excursion would be spent in the company of official government guides wherever we went.

Echoes of Hong Kong

It reminded me of a day trip I’d had a decade before, from Hong Kong while still under British rule to mainland China, where we were only allowed to see the official version of the country. I soon wised up that when our sweet Chinese tour guide, Polly, said “Look left”, it was more interesting to look right to spot what they didn’t want us to see. (Polly was enchanted when a member of our party introduced her to the old nursery rhyme “Polly, Put the Kettle on”.)

Kickstarted with Coffee

In Albania, our day included a walking tour of Saranda, a town very much under construction, which the government was hoping to turn into a major attraction for the yachties that flocked to the Ionian. Our first port of call was where the coffee connection comes in. The coach took us to a small, old-fashioned hotel for a restorative drink after our journey. There was no menu – just instant coffee all round, in chunky white mugs emblazoned with the international Nescafé logo. The staff were clearly proud and excited to offer it to us, so we tried hard to look suitably impressed and grateful.

Charmed by the Children

As we got back on our coach, numerous small children crowded around, pressing us to buy their souvenirs in exchange for valuable Euros, chattering in English. Charmed by these dark-eyed, glossy haired young entrepreneurs, whose average age must have been about ten, I quickly parted company with all the Euro coins in my purse in exchange for trinkets made in China: plastic bead bracelets and cotton handkerchiefs. I wondered whether the Nescafé mugs had also come from China.

Bowled over by Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that gave us a potted history of Albania, we returned passing fields where the crops were being hand-harvested with scythes, to Saranda for a walking tour. This included a stop at the official government souvenir shop that stocked virtually no souvenirs. Still, I was pleased with an Albanian colouring book, a board book of Albanian words and pictures, and a small bag bearing the Albanian double-headed eagle, all for Laura.

The tour ended with an invitation to sample the local spirit. Our Greek tour operator had warned us against this firewater. With a three year old in tow, we decided to spend the rest of our time in Albania enjoying a stroll along the seafront, inspecting the marina under construction. Everyone else hit the harbourside bar.

An Unusual Carousel

Further down the promenade, Laura’s eyes lit up when she spotted an off-duty carousel bearing the most unchildish assortment of rides. Instead of the traditional painted horses, there were only miniature government vehicles: tanks, jeeps, police motorbikes and other symbols of state authority.

With no staff in attendance, the best we could do was to let her climb up on the platform to walk around. Suddenly a throng of olive-skinned Albanian children appeared from nowhere. Entranced by Laura’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, they scooped her up, sat her in a tank, and jumped down onto the promenade, where they proceeded to push the carousel round manually, delighted at her obvious pleasure. After a while they stopped and sat her in a police car, and so it continued.

“I’m sorry, I have no money to pay you,” I said, opening my empty change purse to show them.

They understood, but were not downhearted. They may have hoped for a tip, but they were motivated by kindness, not money. One boy even ran home to fetch a packet of biscuits, offering them to Laura and to us. They carried on entertaining her until it was time for us to leave to catch our return ferry.

The Perfect Ambassadors

Touched by their generosity, we were sorry to have to say goodbye and felt guilty to be returning to our comfortable holiday back on Corfu. We’d heard how impoverished the Albanian people were and feared for the children’s future in their totalitarian state.

But perhaps we need to not have worried. The Albanian government’s plans for Saranda paid off, and apparently it’s now a favoured cruise ship destination. With hospitality like that, I’d return in a heartbeat if I could – although I suspect I saw it at its best, before the crowds descended. I certainly count that day trip it as one of the best holidays in my life. It even made me think a little more kindly of Nescafé,

(Apologies for the lack of photos – I have no idea where my photos from so long ago are stored. Sorting out my photo archives should be my next lockdown project!)


FURTHER READING

cover of Murder Your Darlings
Fly away with Sophie to an idyllic Greek island!

Café frappés prove popular with Sophie Sayers when she spends a week at a writers’ retreat on a tiny Greek island in my latest novel, Murder Your Darlings, available now in ebook and paperback.

Order the ebook for the ereader of your choice.

Click here to order the paperback. 

Posted in Events, Family, Personal life, Writing

Body Clock Versus Alarm Clock: A Lockdown Dilemma

photo of two sleeping kittens curled up
Chez Young we are sleeping like kittens during lockdown – including our new kittens, Bertie and Bingo

I wrote this column towards the end of April for the May 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Now that all but essential keyworkers are at home all day and most of us are no longer slave to the alarm clock, are you finding your body clock is changing?

In our house, we’ve moved into a different time zone, four hours behind British Summer Time. We’re in synch with Rio de Janeiro.

We’re also sleeping more, typically nine to ten hours a night instead of the usual seven. It feels almost like hibernation, but that’s all wrong for spring.

Anyone for estivation? – a handy word meaning the summer equivalent of hibernation, mostly done to survive periods of drought.

As I’m used to working from home, I’d assumed lockdown wouldn’t affect my writing schedule. When getting up at 6.30am to see my daughter off to school, I used to start writing between 8am and 9am, before any other business of the day might distract me. Now I don’t start writing until mid-afternoon. That’s a much bigger lag than our sleep schedule.

I’ve no idea why this is so, but as with all else in lockdown, I’ve decided to go with the flow and count any day that ends without a crisis as a win.

Our current situation makes clear how artificial “office hours” of 9am-5pm are. How did they ever catch on? Of course, office hours don’t apply to many of those keyworkers whose true value to society is now apparent to us all. I bet many people now enjoying working their own flexible hours from home will be lobbying to retain them post lockdown.

Even so, I will have to break my current habit of stepping outside the front door in my nightie at midday to bring in the newspaper/milk/parcels, as there will once again be passers-by to consider.

Roll on the day when moving the wheelie bin onto the pavement no longer feels like an exciting, slightly illicit outing.


Need Escapist Lockdown Reading?

cover of Murder Your Darlings
Fly away with Sophie to an idyllic Greek island!

While all of my novels class as comfort reads (despite the odd murder!), my latest novel Murder Your Darlings is particularly escapist, as it takes place in the idyllic setting of a tiny, remote Greek island in the month of May. Starting an finishing in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, the action takes Sophie Sayers outside of her comfort zone while she takes stock of her relationship with Hector. Will absence make the heart grow fonder? You’ll have to read it to find out!

Order the ebook for the ereader of your choice here.

While most bookshops are currently closed, order the paperback from Amazon during lockdown – or contact me to provide a copy to you directly.

Addicted to Audio?

image of square version of Best Murder in Show cover, ready for new audiobook
An audiobook bargain at just £2.99!

Audiobooks make a great accompaniment to gardening, decorating, crafts and other activities you may be doing more of during lockdown.

I’ve just discovered that the ebook of my first novel, Best Murder in Show, is currently on special offer at just £2.99 on Audible. (Also available from many other ebook retailers – prices may vary.)

Click here to order your copy on Audible.

Siobhan Waring did such a great job with this story that I’ve just booked her to narrate the audiobook of Secrets at St Bride’s later this year.