Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The End of an Era: The Chronicle of an Extraordinary Five Years

cover of Still Charmed
My latest book has just been launched to mark 30 years of life in Hawkesbury Upton

As regular readers of this blog will know, once a month I share here my latest column for the Hawkesbury Parish News, our local community magazine that is possibly the best-read journal in our little Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton, the real-life village that inspired my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels.  

If you’ve been following my blog for more than five years, (and if so, gold star to you!), you may also recall that I gathered together my earlier columns into a book called All Part of the Charm. The columns in that book ran from January 2010, when I gave up my last full-time day-job to write, through 2015. I also included some essays I wrote about moving to the village in 1991.

As the end of 2020 was approaching, being a fan of round numbers, and also to celebrate 30 years of living in Hawkesbury Upton, I decided it was time to collate my next batch of columns into a new book – 60 columns in all, one each month from 2016 to 2020. Rereading them to refresh my memory of their content before writing the introduction, I realised what an extraordinary five years they had been, and how much change – turmoil, even – they had brought to our lives. Yet throughout my columns, written for a local audience in our small corner of the Cotswolds, ran a common thread:

In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent – and to live in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, not only in the season of goodwill, but all year round.

Wherever you are in the world, if you’d like to feel like an honorary or adoptive member of the parish of Hawkesbury, reading this little book will take you there as surely as the back of a certain wardrobe transports us to Narnia.

Below I’m sharing the introduction I wrote to this new book, which you can order now in ebook and paperback.

It’s a slimmer book than the first volume, as it doesn’t include any additional essays, and I’ve changed the layout to be less extravagant with paper, but I hope you’ll think it’s great value at that price – and that you will be what it says on the cover: still charmed.

 

The watercolour by my talented father has already been much admired by friends online

Foreword to Still Charmed:

Thirty Years On

This week, in celebration of 30 years since moving to the Cotswold village of Hawkesbury Upton on 4 January 1991, I dug out my old diary to revisit my initial impressions of village life, starting with a hectic first day in our new home.

“The log man came, bringing 15 sacks of logs, then the sweep came and cleaned both chimneys amazingly cleanly. I’d expected him to be covered in soot. Felt a little out of place when I realised that not only was I straining to understand his accent, but he was straining to understand mine.”

Next day, my husband “went to the shop for eggs and bread. Lots of people friendly there – one man knew he was from the old post office already.”

The house, unoccupied for eighteen months before we bought it, was somewhat spartan, the only heating provided by a vintage single-bar electric fire in the bathroom and an inefficient open fireplace in the front room. For several weeks, we slept on the floor in front of the fire, as everywhere else was too cold and damp. But by the second day, I was already acclimatising to our new home, a mid-nineteenth century stone cottage:

“Even though it seems in some respects that we’re roughing it, the convenience and comfort are infinitely greater than they would have been for the original occupants. When I put off going to the loo here as it’s so cold and damp, I ought to remember they would have gone down the bottom of the garden to the privy.” (Two outdoor toilets, buckets beneath holes in wooden planks, were still intact when we moved in.) “I understand the attraction of chamber pots for the first time.”

In the intervening 30 years, the house has been transformed to modern standards of comfort while we’ve retained many original features and added whimsical new ones of our own. My husband is building a mezzanine floor above the kitchen as I write. We’ve also become completely immersed in village life and are charmed by it.

During that time, I’ve served on many committees and volunteered for various community organisations in one way or another, and for the last 11 years, I’ve been writing a monthly column for our local parish magazine, the Hawkesbury Parish News, which, despite our village now boasting a high-speed internet connection, is just as much the hub of local news as it was when I first moved here. If you want to know about events, developments, future plans, and the traditional hatches, matches and despatches in our community, all you need to do is invest 50p a month in the parish mag, a fee that also includes optional delivery to your door. These days, electronic delivery is also available.

Although I often write articles for the various local organisations I’m involved in, such as the annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival which I founded in 2015, my monthly column has no particular brief. I just write about whatever is front of mind as the deadline looms, which is usually seasonal or otherwise topical. The aim of my contribution is to entertain, amuse, divert and share experiences that I think will make my local friends and neighbours smile. There are plenty of jokes at my own expense, and my chosen topics are often village-centric.

But although Hawkesbury Upton is surrounded by fields and reached only by winding country lanes, most of them single track, our rural idyll does not escape the harsh realities of the outside world. The period this volume covers began in the run-up to the EU referendum and ended literally on the day we in the UK left the European Union. One of the last things I did in 2020 was apply for a new passport, as my old one was due to expire on 2 January 2021. The new one will be blue, not red, and will not bear the words European Union on the cover.

Also, as I wrote the first column shared here, the US presidential election that resulted in a win for Trump was in full swing. As I wrote the final piece, Biden’s victory was assured.

Collating these columns for the collection last week, I gasped when I realised the first entry would be titled “Flu Fury”, a jokey piece written while I was on the mend from a dose of winter flu. I’m glad I didn’t know then about the coming Covid-19 pandemic, nor the disruption and devastation it would bring to the whole world. Even Hawkesbury Upton, tucked away in the Cotswolds, with its moat-like surround of agricultural land, has not escaped unscathed, and my heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones or suffered long-term health complications.

During this extraordinary five-year period, I have lost count of the number of times I have said to my daughter while watching Trump supporters invade the Capitol, “Take note of this, we’re witnessing history in the making”, and last night, as I was planning what to write in this foreword, I said it again.

This time, she replied in her teenaged wisdom, “Everything is history these days”.

Yet truer than ever are the pieces I’ve written celebrating the joy of coming home to Hawkesbury after holidays away and my gratitude for living “in a community in which everyone looks out for their neighbours, and not only in times of crisis or the season of goodwill”. (Who Needs Wifi When You’ve Got Good Neighbours, January 2018). I also often remark upon the continuity of village life. “In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent.” (The Comfort of Consistency, July 2019)

During the pandemic, we may have lost the events that provide the consistency – the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, the midnight carol singing on Christmas Eve – but the community spirit is stronger than ever, not least due to the continuing presence of the Hawkesbury Parish News, which appeared as regularly as ever throughout lockdown, a comforting dose of normality in the midst of the most abnormal of years. In the absence of events news to fill the pages, the editor, Colin Dixon, persuaded more villagers to write articles, reproduced copy from the archives, and kindly shared extracts from my novels to help keep people entertained.

On a brighter note, the five years represented in this volume have included the culmination of my lifelong ambition to become a novelist, with the first of my eight novels published so far unveiled on 1 April 2017. It may have been no surprise to anyone familiar with my columns that my novels have been inspired by my delight in village life, although I hasten to add that all the characters, settings, and situations in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, my Staffroom at St Bride’s series, and my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads are entirely made up. So if you enjoy reading these columns, you should find my novels just your cup of tea – and vice versa. (You’ll find a full list of the novels published so far in the back of this book, and there are plenty more to come.)

Now writing my ninth novel, and with the deadline of my 134th column for the Hawkesbury Parish News looming, I’m grateful for the enthusiasm and support of its readers and production team spurring me on. First Fiona Rowe and now Colin Dixon have worked tirelessly and meticulously, with the support of a hardworking and efficient team behind the scenes, to take the magazine from strength to strength, growing it thicker and more interesting each year. Whatever history has in store for us, I will be proud to write for the Hawkesbury Parish News for as long as I am able, and may it forever be a source of comfort, entertainment and pleasure to its readers.

Debbie Young
January 2021

Buying Links for Still Charmed

Paperback

Ebook

cover of Still Charmed

Buying Links for All Part of the Charm

Paperback

Ebook

Cover of All Part of the Charm

Click here for more information about my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries


COMING SOON: Travels with my Books – a new monthly series of guest posts by authors talking about the setting for their novels

First on the list: B M Allsopp, author of the Fiji Islands Mysteries – follow my blog (click button in the sidebar to the right of this post), if you don’t already, to make sure you don’t miss this intriguing exclusive interview!

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Planning for a Better Year

In my first column of 2021 for the Hawkesbury Parish News, I wrote about the art of planning ahead – or, more accurately, my life as a Last-minute Martha.

As the editor of the Parish News will no doubt agree, I am something of a last-minuter. Ever since I started work as a journalist back in the 80s, nothing makes me as productive as a deadline. Above my desk hangs a framed Posy Simmonds cartoon strip I cut out of The Guardian back then, featuring a hapless hack racing to meet a copy deadline and doing everything but writing. She meets friends at a wine bar (well, this was the 80s), takes clothes to the dry cleaners, and washes her hair, while accruing sympathy from her friends about the pressure of her wretched deadline. She submits her piece to her long-suffering editor at absolutely the last minute, having pulled an all-nighter, garnering further sympathy from her gullible husband.

cartoon of journalist complaining about her deadline - then going for a drink with her friend
(c) Posy Simmonds

Remembering the Filofax

Inspired by that cartoon for over thirty years (so much so that I named my first cat Posy – Ms Simmonds was very pleased when I told her, after I’d heard her speak at the Cheltenham Literature Festival), I’m always pleased to discover a new method of planning my workload more effectively. I’ve tried everything from the Filofax (another craze from the 80s, when we had to file copy by telex and fax to our head office) to an electronic diary. None of these methods have lasted long. Although I’m comfortable with computers, at heart I am a low-technology girl.

More recently, I tried this tip: let your daily to-do list be no longer than would fit on a Post-it Note. My solution: buy bigger Post-it Notes.

photo of book of post-it notes in various sizes

Buying into the Bullet Journal

Then I discovered the Bullet Journal, invented by Ryder Carroll. (Watch his free four-minute tutorial here.) refuse to use the affectionate abbreviation of BuJo that many users prefer, because it reminds me of our Prime Minister’s nickname, which distracts me from any thoughts of efficient planning.

The Bullet Journal starts life as a blank notebook, preferably dotted so you can draw grids for various lists. It includes an index at the front to keep track of the lists you create, such as books to read, creative ideas, and long-term goals, as well as daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly to-do lists. A key provides an appropriate symbol so you can see at a glance how your day is shaping up: a bullet point (no surprises there) for a task, a circle for an event, and so on. You number the top three priorities and put a cross through items as they are completed, so it’s easy to see progress.

image of spread in my bullet journal

So far so good, until I discover one more recommended symbol, a forward arrow named “task migration”, indicating an item to be moved to the next day. In my head, I’ve already labelled it the mañana option – Spanish for “an indefinite time in the future”. So much for deadlines!

But with a year like 2020 behind us, planning no longer seems relevant. In 2021, let’s just seize the day, take our pleasures where we can find them, and do the best we can. If what I do happens to feature on my daily to-do list – like writing this column – I’m counting that as a win.

Wishing you a very happy and healthy New Year, however you plan to spend yours.


IN OTHER NEWS

cover of Still Charmed
Coming soon!

New Non-fiction Book Out Soon

This week marks my thirtieth anniversary of moving to Hawkesbury Upton. To celebrate, I’m working on Still Charmed, the second volume of my collected columns from the Hawkesbury Parish News, which I hope to publish as an ebook and paperback later this month. I’ll announce it here when it’s ready to order, but in the meantime, here’s the cover, featuring a watercolour by my talented father. (The first collection, All Part of the Charm, featured another section of the same painting.)

New Novel Bubbling Under

I’m also working on the seventh Sophie Sayers novel, Murder Lost and Found, which I’m hoping to publish in the spring.

99p Offer on Murder by the Book

I’ve currently got a special seasonal offer running on the fourth Sophie Sayers novel, Murder by the Book, with the ebook just 99p/99c or local currency equivalent until the end of the month. (Also available in paperback at the usual RRP.) This story takes place from the start of January and finishes on Valentine’s Day, when Sophie and her friend Ella plan to hold an event to help stop the village pub, The Bluebird, from going bust – an especially topical theme right now when so many pubs are struggling to survive the pandemic. Revealing fun surprises about Hector’s past, and with the addition of two lively new characters who are siblings to regulars in the series (no plot spoilers here!), Murder by the Book is the perfect pick-me-up for these dreary, dark days and long nights. Click here to order the ebook from the ebook store of your choice and click here to order the paperback.

image of murder by the book on a sofa with blankets
Cuddle up with a book this winter

b

Posted in Personal life, Writing

With the Wisdom of Hindsight at the Turn of the Year

Author Debbie Young
Glad to see the back of 2020
(Photo by Laura Young)

One of the most important things I learned in 2020 was that it is very easy to lose perspective when so much of my life feels out of control.

When a flurry of friends shared end-of-year posts in which they realised 2020 had been more rewarding than it had seemed at the time, I recognised the same was true for me.

At the end of 2019, I was sure that 2020 could only be better. Quite apart from political and environmental disappointments (no need to go into those here), the old year had brought me two major health crises. Two scary dashes to hospital with breathing difficulties just after Christmas had led to a new diagnosis of asthma, on top of a year-long debilitating flare of my rheumatoid arthritis that was not responding to treatment.

Thwarted Plans

I had lots of exciting plans to look forward to in 2020, including the annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival that I run in my home village, The Selfies Awards ceremony at the London Book Fair for which my novel Secrets at St Bride’s was shortlisted, and some interesting speaking engagements at various writing retreats and conferences around the country. Then along came the pandemic.

That annual rail pass I bought in January 2020 is about to expire unused.

Confined to my home by the need to shield due to the immunosuppressants I take for the arthritis (thankfully new ones from February 2020 brought a vast improvement), I felt thwarted, and I struggled to write as much as I thought I should be writing, given the lack of distractions. As a last resort, I set up an unfinished novel on pre-order on Amazon, the deadline forcing me to work flat out to finish it.

Cast Away

Even so, I felt like a castaway, marooned and powerless – a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, albeit with a regular supermarket delivery slot, cats in place of goats, and a husband and daughter instead of Friday for companionship. So while I was hardly deprived, sometimes I couldn’t stop my gaze lingering on the horizon, hoping for signs of rescue. Although one might think this would have been the perfect time to write my planned travel memoir, Travels with my Camper Van, after several false starts, I set it aside, disappointed that it had stalled.

A Surprisingly Productive Year

However, with the wisdom of hindsight that New Year’s Eve brings, I now realise that in 2020 I was far more productive than I had been in 2019, when I published just one novel, Secrets at St Bride’s.

By contrast, in 2020, I wrote two more novels, Stranger at St Bride’s and Murder Your Darlings; the first two in my new series of Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads (c. 20% novel length), The Natter of Knitters and The Clutch of Eggs; and the first Sophie Sayers prequel, a short story Christmas Ginger, featuring Sophie’s Great Auntie May.

array of two new novels and two new novellas
New fiction in 2020

As I’ve done every year since 2010, I also wrote 10 columns for the Tetbury Advertiser and 12 for the Hawkesbury Parish News.  In addition I completed the first two articles in a newly commissioned series of eight for Mslexia (the magazine for women who write), a short non-fiction guidebook for the Alliance of Independent Authors, plus various blog posts for my own blog and as a guest writer on other sites.

By anyone’s standards, that’s productive.

Writing in Captivity

Only now as I’m writing this post does it occur to me that prison has proven a famously fruitful workspace for writers. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur were all written in jail. (More examples are in this Guardian article, though not all are such great role models – Marquis de Sade, I’m looking at you!)

Buoyed Up for New Year

So as I ditch my old 2020 calendars and diaries, I’m going to focus on even more ambitious productivity goals for the new year:

cover of Travels with my Camper Van
Look out 2021, here I come!
  • a new Sophie Sayers novel, Murder Lost and Found
  • a new St Bride’s novel, Scandal at St Bride’s
  • a new trilogy of May Sayers short stories, May Sayers Comes Home
  • in time for Christmas 2021, The Wendlebury Barrow Christmas Compendium of short seasonal stories
  • a third Tale from Wendlebury Barrow (haven’t decided which from my bulging ideas book yet)
  • Travels with my Camper Van, now jumpstarted

So look out, 2021, I’m coming for you!

Whatever your plans are for the new year, I wish you a peaceful, healthy and happy one full of whatever your heart desires.


In the meantime, if you haven’t yet read my new short story Christmas Ginger, which was published on 24th December 2020 exclusively on Helen Hollick’s Discovering Diamonds blog, you can read it here for free, for a flavour of my planned 2021 short story trilogy, May Sayers Comes Home

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Stranger than Fiction

In my last column of the year for the Tetbury Advertiser, I reflect on the strange year that was 2020.

Irrationally fond of round numbers and irrepressibly optimistic, this time last year I was convinced that 2020 would be the antidote we needed to the rigours of 2019. Before 31st December 2019, given ‘2020’ in a word association test, I’d have automatically replied ‘vision’, alluding to the optician’s measure of perfection.

graphic of an eye
So much for 20-20 vision

I was also excited at the prospect of a new decade. Could we look forward to our own ‘Roaring Twenties’ – the heady days of economic growth and prosperity that followed the Great War? (Preferably without an equivalent to the Great Crash of 1929.)

photo of four flappers dancing
The shape of things to come – a new Roaring Twenties? (Image: public domain)

Back to the present day, and that neat and tidy number has morphed into a curse. It’s become the standard response on social media to anyone’s report of misfortune.

Car broken down? “Well, it is 2020.”
Washing machine flooded? “2020 strikes again.”
95-year-old film star dies peacefully in his sleep? “Aargh, 2020, what are you doing to us?”

Of course, it’s not 2020’s fault at all. It’s simply the power of association. But who would have foreseen this time last year that so much turmoil and tragedy could be wrought by a microscopic virus and a larger-than-life political leader? (More than one political leader, depending on your personal point of view.)

Neither of these news tsunamis would pass the credibility test I apply while writing fiction. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said while watching the news this year, “If I put that in one of my novels, readers would complain it didn’t ring true.”

To be fair, I stopped trusting in 2020 early in the year, when I read this piece of anti-fraud advice:

“When signing documents in 2020, write the date in full, rather than abbreviating the year to ‘20’, or tricksters will be able to add any further two digits of their choice to suit their nefarious needs. A will dated simply ‘1/2/20’ could easily be changed to ‘1/2/2000’ or ‘1/2/2025’, thus pre- or post-dating a legitimate current document, with life-changing consequences for the beneficiaries.’

Now there’s a great starting point for one of my mystery novels. The only thing is, would it be a hit with my readers? I’m not sure I should take the risk this year. After all, it is 2020.

Roll on 2021 – and I wish you all a very happy new year!

firework of the numbers 2021


IN OTHER NEWS

cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young
12 short stories that are the perfect antidote pre-Christmas stress

But hang, we’ve still got to get through Christmas 2020 first! If you’re finding the preparations particularly stressful this year, with the added challenges of catering for Covid, here’s a little treat that will lift your spirits and put you into a festive frame of mind…

My collection of warm, witty short stories set in the run-up to Christmas will make you laugh and count your blessings.

“A fabulous festive treat! I’m not normally a short stories reader but I adored this little book. So well written, such an interesting mix, and perfect bedtime reading. Put me right in the mood for Christmas. Loved it.” – Jackie Kabler

Just 99p for the ebook or £4.99 for the paperback (or local currency equivalent worldwide), it’ll make you fall in love with Christmas all over again.

 * * * Buy the ebook here * * * Order the paperback here * * *

 

 

 

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 

*** Ebook *** Paperback ***

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