In my first post of 2020, I’m pleased to invite you to enter an exclusive prize draw to win an item that features in my new novella!
Happy New Year to you! To brighten up what can be a gloomy time of year in the English countryside where I live, I’ve decided to hold a prize draw to mark the launch of my imminent novella. The Natter of Knitters will be the first in my new Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, featuring Sophie Sayers and friends, plus plenty of new and interesting characters.
The Natter of Knitters is about a village yarnbombing event that goes wrong. The plan is to wrap a tree on the village green in handknitted scarves to raise awareness of the plight of the homeless, before the scarves are sent to an appropriate charity for distribution.
As always, Sophie finds herself volunteering to take part, despite not knowing how to knit. – but as as Carol blithely tells her, “Everyone can knit once they know how.”
From the basket in Carol’s shop, Sophie chooses wool in four floral shades of blue: forget-me-not, bluebell, cornflower and hyacinth.
Forget-me-nots are a recurring motif in the Sophie Sayers series. In her fourth adventure, Murder by the Book, her bookseller boyfriend Hector, secretly a romantic novelist, presents her on Valentine’s Day with a book called The Girl with Forget-me-Not Eyes – the colour of Sophie’s eyes, of course!
And the prize is…
The scarf Sophie knits in the story, handcrafted in a luxury mix of fine merino, silk and cashmere – see the “before” picture of the raw materials at the top of this post.
If you’d like a chance to win the finished scarf, all you have to do is join my mailing list. When you subscribe, you’ll also have the option to download a free ebook of another Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks. Current members of my list will also be included in the draw.
The draw will take place on 14th February 2020. Romantic? Moi?
The Natter of Knitters will be published on or before 14th February. (I’ll confirm the precise date shortly.)
A Valentine’s Day Mystery
In the meantime, if you fancy a topical read between now and then, the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder by the Book,, runs from the beginning of January to Valentine’s Day, and is available as an ebook from Amazon and all other major ebook stores, and as a paperback either from Amazon or to order from your local neighbourhood bookshop (just quote ISBN 978-1911223269 and they’ll be able to order it in for you).
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
In my column for the December issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I shared the new discovery that’s helping me to learn Latin: Duolingo
For a couple of years at secondary school, I studied Latin using what was then considered a revolutionary new system.
The Cambridge Latin Course tried hard to make learning fun and Latin funky. The first year’s course book had a bright orange cover – very right-on in the 1970s, when I chose to paint my bedroom walls bright orange too.
The course revolved around the story of a real-life family, headed by Lucus Caecilius Iucundus, a rich banker, living in Pompeii just before the devastating eruption of Vesuvius.
Call me suggestible, but Lucus Caecilius Iucundus and his family came to seem very real to me, and I cared about them.
When I changed schools at the age of 14, to my regret Latin was no longer an option.
Now, decades later, I’m making up for lost time with a very 21st century route to fluency: a free app called Duolingo. With an estimated three million users globally, Duolingo aims to please its students wherever they are in the world. Thus I find myself translating surreal conversations featuring New York, Philadelphia, Boston and California, none of which existed when Latin was a living language.
Having always wondered what happened to Caecilius and family, I decided to investigate. To my surprise, our experimental texts have since become a classic teaching method, celebrating 50 years in print. The particular book I used, albeit now published with a less startling coloured cover, is currently Amazon’s #1 bestseller in Latin.
Even more surprising is that Caecilius and family have since featured in an episode of Dr Who, which my daughter kindly found me on Netflix. Their adventure opens just as Vesuvius is making ominous noises, portentous of imminent eruption and mass destruction. What becomes of my chum Caecilius? You’ll have to watch it to find out. (Here’s the link to its IMDB page: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1173173/)
But I have one remaining question: had I had been able to persevere with my Latin studies, would Dr Who have popped up in the A Level textbook? Now that would have made Latin cool.
PS Added Duolingo fun can be found on this alternative Twitter account: @shitsduosays, which highlights the more bizarre and surreal phrases it teaches you. Here are a few screenshots to whet your appetite:
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.
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 centenaryof 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.
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.
In my next novel, Murder Your Darlings, due out in December, the action is set partly on the Greek island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea. From the outset, I thought it would be fun to hijack for one of my characters the rather beautiful name of my first ever Greek friend, Vasilios.
Although I’ve spent a lot of time in that region on holiday, as well as on a memorable writing retreat organised by Jessica Bell, I met Vasilios decades before in the unlikely setting of Frankfurt, Germany.
Between the ages of 14 and 18, I attended Frankfurt International School (FIS), run on American lines with dozens of different nationalities on its roll, aged 6-18. Vasilios Chakos joined us not from Greece, but from Chicago, where if I remember rightly his father, a Greek Orthodox priest, had been a bishop. (Apologies if any of these details are inaccurate -it was all a long time ago now!)
While in the US, his name had been truncated to the more American “Bill”, and a smooth American accent overlaid on his rich Greek voice. Unlike most teenage boys, Bill had beautiful old-fashioned manners and courtesy, and a kind and generous heart. He had a younger sister who was blind, and who went to a different school, but on the rare occasion i saw them together, I was touched to see how gentle he was with her.
A Class Act
He also had a keen sense of humour, was learned, witty and wise beyond his years, and appreciated the finer things in life, particularly music, language and literature. His singing voice sent shivers down my spine, and he had a great stage presence, showcased when he took key parts in our school musicals, Annie, Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. I especially loved his robust rendition of “I’m A Bad, Bad Man”. His performances made him a bit of a celebrity to younger kids in the school, as well as to his peers and to parents and staff.
Our relationship was very close, but always platonic, although I remember once when we were walking across the campus together being accosted by an elementary school pupil who shouted “Hey, Bill, is she your girlfriend?” His riposte was classic Bill – to quote John Donne: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love!” That silenced his heckler, though puzzled him somewhat too.
Another fond memory is of our school trip to London in our senior year, when we happened to visit Windsor Castle on 14th November, Bill’s birthday. As we arrived, a military band in the courtyard began to play “Happy Birthday to you”. Turns out it’s also HRH Prince Charles’s birthday, but we liked to think it was really in Bill’s honour.
Bill liked to cultivate an air of mystery when he left school, shunning social media as far as I’m aware, and I saw him only a few times after graduation. Twice we met in London, where he was studying economics at LSE. On one occasion someone had just tried to take my purse from my handbag on the Tube and I arrived at his flat in a complete state, but Bill quickly restored my equilibrium with his usual calm and philosophical approach to life’s crises.
Our last meeting was in Athens in April 2003, where my husband and I spent a couple of days on our honeymoon before heading to Lefkas for a week’s sailing which included a stop on Ithaca. We had a very pleasant evening with Bill and his wife, a delightful Greek lady, and Bill and my husband really hit it off, discussing politics and national identity from the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC onwards.
Fast forward 16 years and I was about to send my manuscript to my editor for polishing pre-publication. I was ready to unveil the details to Bill, if I could only pin him down. I hoped he’d be flattered and touched at my gesture – and it would be a good excuse to make contact. Why had we left it so long?
Despite Bill’s aversion to social media, he’d previously been relatively easy to find on professional websites. Formerly a Greek parliamentary correspondent, he had moved into a career in shipping insurance, in which he was very successful and highly regarded by his peers. I was not prepared for what I found: a sad announcement by his professional organisation, stating that he passed away in January 2018.
I am still reeling from the shock. Bill was always a larger-than-life character to me, and although we saw each other so rarely, he was an anchor. It felt like he was there if I needed him, like the book he gave me one Christmas at school, at arm’s reach on the shelf in my study.
And now I’m especially glad that I used his name in my book, although I never got the chance to tell him about it. However, the character I’ve given it to is nothing like Bill in personality, so to set the balance right, I may have to include in a future novel a charming gentleman named Bill with a singing voice like chocolate-brown velvet, and I may even make him a Bad, Bad Man.