During the early part of lockdown, the Tetbury Advertiser furloughed itself for a couple of issues (May and June). With content that is events-led, reporting on recent events and anticipating imminent ones, it seemed a sensible step. However, it’s good to see it return for its summer issue (a joint July/August edition, for which I wrote this piece about our new kittens, acquired just before we began to self-isolate. As ever, you can read the whole issue online – here’s the link for the July/August edition.
(I also wrote about kittens for the June issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, and I posted that article on my blog here last month- so apologies if this sounds familiar!)
There’s nothing like the acquisition of kittens to lift the spirits, and ours couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
We arranged in February with the Stroud Cats’ Protection League to adopt a pair of boys as soon as they were old enough to leave their mother. This took us to Saturday 21st March, a pleasingly auspicious date on two counts: the first day of spring and my parents’ anniversary (67 years and counting).
Back in February, little did we know that collecting the kittens from the kindly foster-carer would be our last family outing before lockdown. Ever the optimist, I soon realised that enforced confinement at home would give us the best chance of bonding with our new arrivals, especially for our daughter, who would otherwise have been at school all day.
Once home, inspecting the adoption papers revealed another good omen: the kittens had been born on my birthday. This happened also to be the date our senior cat, Dorothy, a former stray, adopted us seven years ago. We called her Dorothy after the character in the Wizard of Oz who finds herself unexpectedly far from home. We named Bertie and Bingo, both boys, after the skittish, privileged and generally irresponsible young men in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.
Bertie and Bingo, after spending the first nine weeks of their lives in a pen (albeit an ample one), were initially content to keep to one room in our house. Since my husband built his room a couple of years ago, we had, with a singular lack of imagination, referred to it simply as “the extension”. Now I think of it as The Drones’ Club, which is where Bertie Wooster and chums take their meals in the Jeeves novels, often leaving chaos in their wake.
Advised to keep the kittens indoors for a couple of weeks, we eventually let them into our enclosed garden. We kept them on tiny harnesses to slow them down until they’d got their bearings. Bertie and Bingo do everything at high speed, unlike our senior cat, Dorothy, who lopes around languidly like the Pink Panther.
Off the Leash
After a few days we allowed them to roam at will, gradually expanding their territory and surprising us with their feats of athleticism. They share a talent for scaling vertical walls with the power and grace of Spiderman. Bingo has proven a dab paw at swingball, which he sees as a scaled-up version of their scratching post, which happens to be topped by a ball on a string. Bertie prefers the trampoline, climbing to the top of the netting surround with ease.
It’s only when one of the kittens tries to squeeze into the cardboard box that used to be big enough for both of them that we realise how much they have grown. I haven’t yet dared step on the bathroom scales to see whether lockdown has had the same effect on me.
(The next issue of the Tetbury Advertiser will be out in September, as they also publish a double issue for July/August.)
Cats and Kittens in my Stories…
As a cat lover, it’s perhaps inevitable that cats and kittens feature in my novels, often serving to move the plot along and adding new dimensions to the characters.
In Springtime for Murder, the fifth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Sophie acquires a kitten, while investigating the strange goings-on at the Manor House, where Bunny Carter, a sparky elderly lady, lives with a houseful of cats and her cat-averse daughter.
(Buying links: buy the ebook online here, buy the paperback online here, or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223344.)
In Stranger at St Bride’s, the first in my St Bride’s School series, McPhee, the headmistress’s cat and constant companion, joins forces with Gemma to try to drive away the unwelcome stranger, with comical results. (Buying links: Buy the ebook online, buy the paperback online or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 979 19 11 223 597.)
(I’ve just realised that in both cases the cats are black – I suppose that’s what comes of writing mystery stories!)
The fifth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories
When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog.
This month we’re heading to the other side of the world to talk to Tasmanian author Madeleine D’Este about her love of Enid Blyton’s The O’Sullivan Twins.
I first got to know Madeleine last year when she kindly invited me to be a guest on her lively podcast series. It was great fun to speak to her online in Melbourne, Australia, at opposite ends of our day, thanks to the twelve-hour time difference! You can hear our conversation on her podcast site here.
Madeleine is the first guest in this series to choose an Enid Blyton classic – which has surprised me, as when I mention school stories, most people immediately think of Enid Blyton.
(However I do have another post lined up for later in the year in which Malory Towerswill be the guest’s choice.)
Madeleine also writes school stories herself, aimed at teenagers and young adults. Her latest novel, The Flower and the Sword, nominated for a prestigious Australian Shadow Award last year, is a horror story set around a high school production of Macbeth. What a great idea, especially as in the UK at least “the Scottish play” is on the syllabus for the GCSE public exams!
Now, let’s find out why Madeleine so loves The O’Sullivan Twins…
Madeleine, welcome to my blog! To kick off, for the sake of those unfamiliar with your favourite school story, can you please tell us a little about it?
Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan are back for another term at St Clare’s and this term the twins are determined to buckle down and do well.
But the new term brings new faces to St Clare’s, including their vain cousin Alison, the pretty Lucy and the sullen Margery who seems determined not to make any friends.
There are blow-ups and pranks and midnight feasts to distract the twins from their school work, but when a fire threatens St Clare’s, which of the girls will turn out to be the real heroine?
How old were you when you first read it, and how often have you reread it since?
I devoured all the St Clare’s books when I was around eight years old in the early 1980s. I re-read The O’Sullivan Twins about five years ago and now again in 2020.
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
When I read The O’Sullivan Twins about five years ago, I was struck by how the key theme of the book seemed to be the need to conform. Through peer pressure, the twins and their friends ostracise and basically bully those girls who don’t fit in.
Now as an adult, I understand the historical context and that the book was written in the midst of World War II when diverting from the norm had real consequences, but the undercurrent of bullying tarnished my pristine innocent memories of the book.
But… re-reading again in 2020, I saw another side to the story. While there’s no denying the peer pressure to conform, this time I also noticed how each “outsider” character is given an opportunity to explain why they are behaving in a certain way.
The O’Sullivan Twins highlights that the non-conforming characters have various, and perfectly valid, reasons for their behaviour, they each have their own issues and traumas which the other girls may know nothing about. For example, Margery feels abandoned by her father and Mam’zelle (the French teacher) is thorny because she is worried about her sick sister. Everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Who knew Enid Blyton was so layered?
What did you particularly like about this book and about the author? Anything you disliked?
I was obsessed by boarding school books and desperately wanted to go to a boarding school myself. I think I was drawn to the fun and friendship and the food. The rituals of the schools were exotic and enticing to me, the midnight feasts, the trips to town in twos and I always wondered what ‘prep’ was.
In retrospect, the way the girls are described physically was irritating. A girl who is pretty is generally good while an ugly or “unattractive” girl or woman is something to be pitied or distrusted. Sigh.
Which character did you identify with?
I was fascinated by the “sneak” character, Erica,the villain of the story – the girl who went behind everyone’s backs to spoil their fun. Her motivation intrigued me and how she continued to cause trouble even though she didn’t seem benefit or gain any status from her mean tricks.
I often wonder why people act this way in real life. What are they gaining from it?
How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
I never went to boarding school, although I did play lacrosse (very badly) in high school, but I became obsessed with creating my own school rolls. I would take out an atlas and a book of baby names and create a list of names of the girls in my class along with their home towns (I was also influenced by The Chalet Schoolbooks and so every hometown was very exotic).
My mother still thinks it was very strange but now I understand I was creating character lists!
How did it affect your writing?
Three words: sizzling fat sausages. Enid Blyton gave me a love for sumptuous and evocative food descriptions which I still love to write (and read) today, and I continue to write feisty female characters.
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
I attended Australian state schools in Canberra, Launceston and Hobart.
Were your friends also fans, or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
Reading has always been my private world, my little retreat from everyone and everything. And it still is.
My favourite time of the day is when I turn off all the devices and start to wind down by reading a good book with a big mug of herbal tea.
Would it still resonate with young readers today?
Young readers would find The O’Sullivan Twins very old fashioned, I imagine. The distinct lack of technology would make St Clare’s an alien world. However, if a young reader could overlook the “olden days” setting, I believe the themes of conformity, friendship and compassion would remain constant.
And of course, the truisms of growing up and blossoming into your own person never goes out of fashion.
Thank you so much, Madeleine D’Este, for this entertaining and insightful analysis of The O’Sullivan Twins – and best of luck with your own school stories, as well as your series for adult readers.
To find out more about Madeleine D’Este, her books and her podcast, visit her website:
If our conversation has whetted your appetite for a more contemporary take on school stories for grown-ups, now’s a good time to try my St Bride’s School series:
SPECIAL OFFER: The ebook of the first in series, Secrets at St Bride’s, is currently on special offer at 99p/99c or the local equivalent all over the world, until the end of July. (Buy online in the ebook format of your choice here – also available in paperback here, or ask your local bookshop to order a copy for you.)
JUST LAUNCHED: its sequel, Stranger at St Bride’s is hot off the press (published 1st July 2020), and already earning great reviews. (Buy online – click here for ebook or click here for paperback – or ask your local bookshop to order a copy for you. )
In my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I addressed an ancient form of rural trading: the use of your front cottage garden wall as an impromptu shop counter. It’s a common sight in the English countryside to see home-grown produce sold this way, especially in times of summer surplus,with payment made via an honesty box. Where I live in the Cotswolds, and I’m sure in other rural regions all around the UK, lockdown has triggered a new twist on garden-wall trading – the free distribution of unwanted household goods.
Social media posts saying “It’s on my front wall” have become commonplace during lockdown.
As we declutter our houses, the front wall has been the closest we can get to a charity shop drop-off. This method has the added bonus of feedback. I was gratified to hear from a local boy’s mother how thrilled he was at the progress of the mint plant he’d adopted from me.
The prospect of free gifts in someone else’s front garden lured me out for my first village stroll after twelve weeks of shielding. I returned home with abundant bounty:
the perfect pot in which to store my kitchen knives
a small vase just right for the pinks I’m currently cutting every day
a set of pressed glass dishes the colour of rosé wine that makes me smile every time I see them
and a planter just like the one I used to admire as a small child at infants’ school. (The less useful a memory, the better my recall.)
But the pleasure lies deeper than in the initial frisson of acquisition. What makes such trophies special is knowing the circumstances in which they have been given.
Antique dealers set great store by “provenance” – the record of an item’s ownership to show it’s genuine and honestly come by. The provenance of “off the wall” items is precious in a different way. Such things are being gifted, often to strangers, in a spirit of generosity fuelled by the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves.
To me these items will always be souvenirs not of Covid-19 but of the kindness of neighbours and of their propensity to offer solace in a time of crisis.
I hope such exchanges continue long after lockdown is over. I for one intend to keep putting surplus items on my front garden wall, weather permitting. With the triffid-like growth of the mint in my garden, I should have plenty to go around.
Village Trading in Wendlebury Barrow
I haven’t yet used this idea in my village mystery series. In the fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, all shopping scenes take place either in Carol Barker’s village shop, where she stocks goods in alphabetical order to make them easier to find, and Hector’s House, the bookshop and tearoom where Sophie Sayers works. But I’m adding it to my ideas book for future use.
There must be a good mystery plot hinging on the mysterious appearance and disappearance of various goods on Sophie’s front wall!
If you’ve not yet encountered Sophie Sayers, you might like to know that the sixth book, Murder Your Darlings, was launched at the end of February, and I’m currently planning the plot for the seventh, Murder Lost and Found.
Order from your local bookshop by quoting ISBN 978-1-911223-13-9
I’m delighted to announce that today marks the launch of my latest novel, Stranger at St Bride’s. This is the second in my St Bride’s School series and the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s (shortlisted for the Bookbrunch Selfies Award 2020 for the best independently published fiction in the UK).
To mark its launch, I thought it would be fun today to share the story behind this particular novel, which was inspired by my own experience of working at an English boarding school.
The Premise for Stranger at St Bride’s
As you’ll know if you’ve read the first in the series, Gemma Lamb has recently joined this eccentric boarding school for girls as an English teacher. It’s a residential post and she’s enjoying its beautiful setting. She is also making good friends among her secretive but kindly colleagues.
Then on the first day back after the autumn half-term holiday, an American stranger turns up claiming to be the rightful owner of the school’s magnificent country estate. At once Gemma fears losing not only her job and her home, but also her hopes for a relationship with charismatic PE teacher Joe Spryke.
Her fears are compounded when the headmistress, Hairnet, accepts the stranger’s claim due to his remarkable resemblance to the school’s late founder.
So it’s down to Gemma to fight his claim and save the school, with a little help from her friends:
– the put-upon Bursar, ousted from his cosy estate cottage by the stranger
– the enigmatic Max Security, always up for a bit of espionage
– irrepressible Mavis Brook, geography teacher, itching to fell a tree on top of the stranger’s white Rolls-Royce
– Judith Gosling, history teacher and genealogy expert, who knows more about Lord Bunting than she’s letting on
Fickle maths teacher Oriana Bliss is even prepared to marry the stranger to secure St Bride’s future, especially if it means she gets to drive his fancy car. That’s if inventive pranks by the girls – and the school cat – don’t drive him away first.
The reason the girls’ pranks feature in this story is Debbie Irving’s comment in her review of Secrets at St Bride’s:
My only complaint is that the pupils are far too well-behaved!
That was my cue to dream up some high-jinks that the girls use to try to drive away Earl Bunting, the unpleasant stranger. He’s a baddie that I hope, like St Bride’s staff and pupils, you will love to hate!
The Origins of the Stranger
The idea for this story has been simmering in my subconscious for many years, even before I dreamed up the concept of the St Bride’s series. It arose when I was working at Westonbirt School, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, just a few miles from my home in the Cotswold countryside.
Like St Bride’s, and very many other private schools, Westonbirt is set in a former stately home. It was built by Robert Holford, one of the ten richest gentlemen in Victorian England. He also planted what’s now the National Arboretum at Westonbirt. once part of the grounds to the house. His legacy is of such historic importance that it has its own charity to preserve the fabric of his house and grounds: The Holfords of Westonbirt Trust.
When Robert Holford died in 1892, he left the estate to his son, Sir George Holford. When Sir George died without issue in 1926, for a time it was thought that the house would be demolished. Such wilful destruction may seem outrageous to 21st century Britain, when we do so much to protect and preserve the nation’s cultural heritage. But in those days, with the rise in inheritance tax and the increasing difficulty in making estates pay for their own running costs, it was not uncommon to see a beautiful old property torn down and sold off for scrap if the owner could no longer maintain it.
Fortunately, Westonbirt House was reprieved by a charitable trust engaged in founding new schools. The Martyrs’ Memorial Trust decided Westonbirt would be just right for a boarding school for the daughters of the gentry. it opened its doors in 1928, and has been going strong ever since.
I worked at the school for thirteen years, and one of my many roles was to give guided tours to visitors. Occasionally members of the public would turn up in reception without an appointment, hoping to have a chance to see behind the scenes, especially in the school holidays. During one summer vacation, I answered the door to a pleasant American couple who had a particular reason for wanting to look around: the gentleman’s name was Holford.
For a moment I had a horrible suspicion that he was a long-lost heir, come back to declare his ownership of the property, planning to oust the school and take it over as his family seat. Luckily my fears were groundless, and an informal tour and a photo opportunity were enough to satisfy him before he went on his way. Nonetheless, after that I always wondered what might happen if another Holford with a stronger claim turned up.
And that imaginative leap led to the opening chapter of Stranger at St Bride’s, which you can sample below.
“Miss Lamb, Miss Lamb, there’s a ghost outside the front door!”
At St Bride’s School for Girls, I never quite know what to expect when I open the staffroom door to deal with a girl’s enquiry, but Imogen’s announcement before the first lesson of the day was unprecedented.
“Foolish child,” muttered Mavis Brook, the geography teacher, from behind me, closing the exercise book she was marking. “I blame that Halloween nonsense for putting such silly ideas into her head. Most unhealthy.”
The terror on Imogen’s face made me loath to dismiss her claim as a prank, although that seemed more likely than seeing a real ghost. I tried to make light of the situation to calm her down.
“Anyone’s ghost in particular? Are you sure it’s not just one of your friends in a white sheet?”
Imogen shook her head vigorously.
“Oh no, miss, it’s a real ghost all right. You should see it. It’s far too tall to be any of my friends. And it’s a man.”
Imogen, aged 11, came up only as far as my shoulder, but there were some very tall girls in the top class of seventeen- to eighteen-year-olds. Might one of those try such a stunt?
“OK, Imogen, wait a moment and I’ll take a look out of the staffroom window to see whether it’s still there.”
I closed the door – school policy is to keep the staffroom private from the girls – and crossed to the big bay window that gave on to the forecourt. As I peered round to view the front porch, the doorbell rang again, and a tall, thin, dark-haired man with a wide clipped moustache stepped back to look around for signs of life.
Nearby on the window seat, Oriana Bliss, Head of Maths, looked up from a stationery catalogue she had been browsing through and followed my gaze.
“He looks like flesh and blood to me.”
“Well, you’re the expert,” said PE teacher Joe Spryke, unzipping his pink tracksuit top. Joe is a former competitive cyclist on the run from hostile journalists who unfairly blamed him for an international sports scandal. During term-time, Joe disguises himself as a woman to escape detection.
I narrowed my eyes to focus better on the stranger. I had to agree with Oriana.
“He looks familiar, but I don’t think he’s one of the girls’ fathers, is he?”
Oriana laid her catalogue down on the seat beside her.
“Not unless the Bursar’s signed up a new pupil during the half-term holiday. And speaking of the Bursar, where is he? Why isn’t he answering that pesky doorbell?”
In the absence of a budget that would stretch to a receptionist, answering the door falls to the Bursar, the only official man in the school besides Max Security (not his real name, of course – like Joe, he’s incognito). Max is like St Bride’s own Scarlet Pimpernel. You never knew where he might pop up next, and it is often in the place you least expect. The Bursar is far more visible, an overt equivalent to Max’s undercover agent – a kind of bouncer, perhaps. The Bouncing Bursar. I smiled. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all, now I’d got used to him.
The bell rang for the third time. Oriana glanced at the wall clock above the door, then at me. There were just a few minutes left before lessons began for the day. I took her hint.
“I suppose I can let him in myself.”
Imogen, still waiting outside the staffroom door, skipped alongside me as I strode down the corridor to the entrance hall.
“Oh miss, you are brave! Do you want me to get a gang of girls to rescue you in case it’s the dangerous kind of ghost?”
I tried not to hurt her dignity by laughing. She meant well.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine, thank you. I don’t think much harm can come to me answering the front door in broad daylight.”
“Ooh, yes, thank goodness it’s daylight. That means he can’t be a vampire. But I’ll hide nearby, just in case. If you need me, shout the code word. What should our code word be?”
After spending half-term with my parents, I hadn’t yet retuned to the girls’ mindset.
“How about ‘help’?”
“I don’t think you’re really trying, miss.”
When we reached the vast entrance hall that had so intimidated me on my arrival at the school back in September, Imogen took cover behind one of the broad marble pillars supporting the ornate painted ceiling. I marched across the tiled floor, heels clicking, and heaved open the front door.
“Good morning,” I said, blinking against the pale November sunshine. “How can I help you, sir?”
The stranger stepped forward, assuming I’d let him in. We did an awkward shuffle as I tried to stall him until I’d established his credentials. We’re very hot on child protection at St Bride’s, even with members of school staff. Max Security lives in Rose Lodge, one of the pair of cottages at the entrance to the main drive, and has security cameras all over the place. In the other cottage, Honeysuckle Lodge, lives the Bursar. Thus, even the two men at the heart of school life are in their leisure time kept at a distance from the main school building.
“Why, good morning to you, ma’am.” The stranger spoke with a leisurely US drawl. With his dark moustache, black suit, brocade waistcoat and string tie, he reminded me of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara would have felt right at home at St Bride’s, with its ostentatious historic house and gardens, although our English weather couldn’t compete with the southern sunshine at Tara, her family plantation estate.
If the stranger was a belated trick or treater, his choice of costume was unusual. I kept my hand on the doorknob. I wasn’t going to let him in without good reason.
“Do you have an appointment, please?”
“Why, thank you, ma’am, I surely do.”
He gave a slight bow. Was he mocking me with his elaborate Southern charm?
“And with whom might your appointment be, sir?”
I’m not the kind of English teacher who is a stickler for “whom” in general conversation, but his formal speech was rubbing off on me.
“With Miss Caroline Harnett, your headmistress, if you please. I believe I am right on time.”
He patted the pocket in his waistcoat, from which hung a silver watch chain, fastened at the other end to a button. Holding the door open to allow him in, I pointed to the signing-in book on the table beside the sofa.
“If you would be so kind as to write your name in our visitors’ book, I’ll give you a security badge and tell Miss Harnett you’re here.”
The stranger bent his head in acknowledgement and produced from his inside jacket pocket an engraved gold fountain pen. He signed his name in copperplate of such a size that it spilled over the edges of the signature box, yet the loops were so tightly closed that I couldn’t make out what he’d written.
“Whom shall I say is here for her? I mean, who?”
He added an ornate swirl of self-importance beneath his signature, then gazed up at me in feigned surprise, as if he were a celebrity recognised wherever he went. He straightened up, capped his pen and returned it to its pocket.
“My name is Bunting. Earl Bunting. Thank you kindly.”
The gasp that issued from behind the pillar echoed my own surprise. Lord Bunting was the school’s Victorian founder. Over a hundred years before, when he’d apparently died without issue, he’d bequeathed his house and grounds to be turned into a boarding school for girls.
I was unsure how to address the stranger. My Lord? Your Excellency? Your Worship? The school library’s copy of Debrett’s Peerage would tell me. We had plenty of titled girls on the roll, but it was school policy not to use those titles in daily life, so I’d never needed to swot up on the etiquette before. For now, I took the easy option.
“Please take a seat, sir, and I’ll tell Miss Harnett you’re here.”
As I marched off to the Headmistress’s study, Imogen came pattering after me.
“Now do you believe me, miss? It’s the ghost of Lord Bunting, isn’t it? Didn’t you recognise him?”
The life-size oil painting of the school’s founder on the wall of the assembly hall had made him a familiar figure to us all.
Imogen skipped to overtake me, then turned back to face the way we’d come.
“I’m going to the hall now to see if the picture’s still there. Lord Bunting might have stepped down from it and turned real. That’s the sort of thing that happens at Halloween. I’ve seen it before.”
“Yes, in a play my grandma took me to see in the summer holidays. There were lots of songs in it and all the paintings came to life.”
“That’ll be Ruddigore,” came a voice behind us – Louisa Humber, the music teacher, was on her way to her classroom. “It’s an operetta, Imogen, not a play, by Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Imogen shrugged. “Anyhoo, my point is, there’s probably now a big empty hole in the painting where Lord Bunting used to be.”
Louisa flashed a conspiratorial smile at me.
“Let me know if your ghost bursts into song.”
She walked on.
“Off you go then, Imogen.” I hoped that when she found the painting intact she would feel reassured. “But be as quick as you can, or you’ll be late for your lesson.”
“Yes, Miss Lamb.”
Not wanting to be late for my lesson either, I hastened down the private corridor to the Headmistress’s secluded study and rapped on her door.
“Come in!” came her cheery greeting.
I went in to find Miss Harnett sitting at her desk, contentedly opening her half-term post. Through the bay window behind her lay a neat rose garden, pruned and orderly for the winter. McPhee, her black cat, lay on his side on the window seat, basking in a beam of autumn sunshine, legs stretched out for maximum exposure to the warmth. He’s a substantial cat. I mean she. Officially, McPhee is female, like all the teaching staff – one of Miss Harnett’s policies for the sake of child protection.
“Good morning, my dear. I trust you have had an enjoyable break?”
“Thank you, yes. I felt like one of the girls, going home to see my parents, but it was lovely.”
Unlike the girls, I hadn’t seen my parents for a few years, due to a disastrous relationship with my controlling ex, Steven, from whom I’d fled to this job and some vestige of security. At last I was starting to make up for lost time. I’d be returning to my parents for the Christmas holidays.
“What can I do for you this morning, my dear?”
The pleasure of being back in the Headmistress’s comforting company had almost made me forget the stranger.
“You have a visitor, Miss Harnett. He’s waiting in the entrance hall. He claims he has an appointment with you.”
She glanced at the large hardback diary that lay open on her desk. Her smile faded.
“Ah, yes, so he does. Please escort him to my study.”
She didn’t ask his name.
Setting her pile of post aside, she pulled her daybook towards her.
When I’d retraced my steps to the entrance hall, where I found the stranger gazing up at the ornate painted ceiling, I saw him with fresh eyes. His resemblance to the original Lord Bunting was inescapable.
I coughed to attract his attention.
“Miss Harnett will see you now.”
I raised a hand to indicate the direction of her study. His reverie interrupted, he stood up and straightened his silk tie.
When we passed the foot of the curving marble staircase that led to the residential part of the school, he patted the finial fondly. As he followed me down the oak-panelled corridor to the Headmistress’s study, he whistled in admiration.
“It’s quite a place we have here,” he said in a low voice, as much to himself as to me.
We? I wondered at his choice of pronoun but made no comment.
I knocked on Miss Harnett’s door, waited for permission to enter, then held it wide for him to go in.
The Headmistress rose from her desk and crossed the crimson Persian carpet to greet him. Instantly alert, McPhee leapt down from the window seat and followed at Miss Harnett’s heels, his tail bushy with hostility.
“Ah, Mr Bunting, I’ve been expecting you.”
Eyes wide, I withdrew and left them to it, just as the bell rang for the first lesson. I would have to wait until morning break to update my colleagues about this mysterious stranger.
Like to know what happens next?
Here’s how to order your copy of Stranger at St Bride’s
To order from your local bookshop, quote ISBN 978-1-911223-597
In an occasional series on my blog I share the reasons behind the dedications in my stories. Today I’m describing how Chudleigh Women’s Institute and Westonbirt School inspired the first in my new Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, The Natter of Knitters.
Every book I write has a dedication to the person or people who played a key part in its conception. My mini-mystery The Natter of Knitters, 20% the length of one of my novels, has a three-way dedication:
To Irene Smith, Joy Bell and the Chudleigh WI.
What’s a WI?
First of all, I’d better explain what WI means, for the benefit of readers outside of the UK who aren’t familiar with this long-standing organisation. WI is short for Women’s Institute(motto: Inspiring Women). The Federation of Women’s Institutes coordinates the local groups that meet regularly all over the country. This is how they define themselves on their website:
Inspiring women – then and now
In 1915 we set out to give women a voice and to be a force for good in the community. Since then, our membership and our ambitions alike have grown tremendously. Today , we are the largest women’s organisation in the UK and we pride ourselves on being a trusted place for women of all generations to share experiences and learn from each other.
There is a thriving WI in my home village of Hawkesbury Upton in the Cotswolds, so why is my dedication to a group a hundred miles away in Chudleigh, Devon, a place I’ve visited only once?
A couple of years ago I was a guest speaker at Chudleigh Lit Fest, an ancient wool town in Devon. On my way to the festival marquee, passing by the local playpark, I noticed that its perimeter railings were festooned in colourful knitted scarves .
A sign on the railings explained the WI’s mission: to make scarves for the homeless while also raising awareness of their plight before visitors to the playpark and to the festival.
As a lifelong knitter, this arresting sight inspired me not only to pick up my needles and start a new knitting project, despite it being a hot summer’s day, but also to plot a story that centred around a village yarnbombing event.
The Westonbirt Connection
It took another knitting-related encounter two years later to germinate the seed of the story that was planted on my trip to Chudleigh. When I put a call out on social media seeking a charity that might welcome handknitted items, my former colleague Joy Bell, Head of Textiles Technology (amongst other things) at nearby Westonbirt School, drew my attention to her pupils’ project to knit blanket squares to be turned into blankets for an Indian orphanage they were sponsoring.
A few weeks later I called in to the school to drop off some squares I’d knitted for them. Manning reception was Irene Smith, who is also the school seamstress, running up impressive costumes for school plays. We started chatting about knitting, and her enthusiasm for real wool from Cotswold sheep, as well as from those of her native Scotland, added a further strand (ho ho) to my story. We were talking for so long that at the start of our conversation, girls in lacrosse kit passed by on their way to a PE lesson, and we were still going strong when they returned.
The Natter of Knitters
By the time I got home, the plot of The Natter of Knitters, about a village yarnbombing event that goes wrong, had fallen into place. The story features lots of familiar characters from my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series (Carol, the shopkeeper, teaches Sophie to knit, much to Hector’s annoyance), as well as introducing some memorable new ones.
It’s a quick read, at around 20% of the length of one of my novels, and it’s available either as an ebook or as a tiny postcard-sized paperback. If you’d like to read it, you’ll find the buying links at the end of this post.
In the meantime, my passion for knitting continues, and I’m currently alternating between tiny knitted flowers for fun and to use up lots of oddments:
and a “lockdown blanket” for function, made in colours to match my favourite Harris Tweed cushion. (There’s a nice piece about the concept of a lockdown blanket here.)