Come back on Saturday 20th December to find out more! (And if you’d like a reminder in your inbox, click on the “follow blog” button, if you’re not already a follower!) Big thanks to Helen Hollick for getting us all organised for this!
I seem to be going in for tongue-twister titles lately – but don’t blame me for this one! I’ve been tagged in a blog hop that was started by Susie Orman Schnall, author of On Grace (US Link, UK Link).
It’s the 40th Birthday Swag Bag Blog Hop, and the premise is that the blogger is going to a friend’s fortieth birthday bash in an exotic island resort. (I should be so lucky!) The challenge is to list a few of your favourite things that you’d like to add to the swag bag for everyone in the group.
You can read the original post HERE. I was tagged by my editor Alison Jack, who is also an author.She recently presented me with my own swag bag – a neatly branded bag containing a lovely hardback copy of her own novel, Dory’s Avengers, which is now nearing the top of the to-read pile by my bed. You can read her post HERE.
Inevitably in this blog hop challenge, one of the items is a book! Read on to see what I’ve chosen…
My favourite book of all time is Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, but somehow this doesn’t seem right for a 40th birthday present, nor for reading on a tropical island. I think I’d have to go instead for an uplifting, jolly book that I’ve read recently that struck me as a great beach read: One Night at the Jacaranda by Carol Cooper. Not entirely frivolous, as there are also serious themes in there, but it’s mostly about making the most of life and starting over, following many characters after a night of speed-dating. A great wake-up call for anyone who hits 40 with the feeling that life has passed them by. This book will encourage them to see that it really hasn’t. (As I can also assure you myself, being on the upper side of 40.) The ebook is just 99p on Amazon UK for the month of June, but I’d splash out and buy the paperback – and also get it signed, as it’s written by a friend of mine!
My favourite beauty product happens to be one that would be perfect for a tropical island trip – those little single-use facial washcloths made by the Oil of Olay people. It’s a really handy travel product (and good at home too), very refreshing and feels rejuvenating at least, although it doesn’t actually smell of Oil of Olay and it isn’t pale pink either, unlike the classic Oil of Ulay (as it used to be called) that I associate with my mum. (Read more about that in “The Scent of a Mummy”.)
Three contendors here – boxed sets of Mike Oldfield, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, or Buena Vista Social Club – all music that I can happily drift away to any time, whatever I’m doing. They’re all largely without words, or at least without words in a language that I can understand. Perfect relaxation music. Not sure whether Cuba counts as tropical, but I guess the Cuban Buena Vista Social Club would be the most appropriate for the setting.
My choice of any extra treat
As an old-fashioned girl, and a writer, it may come as no surprise that my extra treat would be a beautiful journal of some sort, to make the point that your 40th birthday is the first day of the rest of your life, and that the adventures are just beginning. Maybe a five-year diary, or an undated journal with a beautiful cover. I particularly like my Tardis notebook – I’ve had to buy several of those to give to Whovian friends, and I also use it as a prop when I’m public speaking about social media. (“Think of Twitter as your Tardis, enabling you to reach anyone, anywhere…”)
Passing it on
With my virtual gifts stashed inside, the blog hop now passes on to two more bloggers for their suggestions, from opposite sides of the globe!
First up in England, like me, is Sarah Dale, an occupational psychologist. Given her career, the bag will be in safe hands with Sarah! She has also written a couple of thoughtful self-help books, one of which, Bolder and Wiser, celebrates the benefits that come with growing older. Aimed at 50+, it’s a book to inspire any woman reaching a landmark birthday, whether 40, 50, 60 or beyond. Sarah lives and writes in Nottingham, where she’s just been appointed head of PR and marketing for the city’s Festival of Words this autumn, and I’m looking forward to hearing more about that.
Then the virtual swag bag will zip round the globe to Australia to Rebecca Lang, an editor and author, whose short story Army Dreamers I really enjoyed reading earlier this year – an evocative, eerie tale set in the outback. Rebecca is based in Sydney. I’ve never met either Sarah or Rebecca in person, but have got to know them through the fabulous Alliance of Independent Authors, which brings together self-publishing writers with high standards all around the globe.
Their posts should go live on Monday 16th June, but you can get to know them in the meantime just by clicking on their names here, which will take you straight to their blogs.
Thanks again to Alison Jack for tagging me – her post is of course already up, so you can read that one now too!
What would YOUR choice be for the 40th Birthday Swag Bag? Do share, via the comments! Or contact any bloggers further down the chain if you’d like to take a turn and be tagged too!
Don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreadful chain letters that does the rounds on the internet, imploring you to forward an email to umpteen friends to earn good luck or ward off a curse. A blog chain is simply a blog post written on a set topic, at the end of which you nominate a given number of bloggers to do the same. Put a lot of them together and – ta da! – you have a chain.
The blog chain is a cousin of the blog hop, which requires a quantity of bloggers post simultaneously on the same topic, including links to each other’s posts. You may have spotted a recent hop that I took part in: Helen Hollick’s excellent Winter Solstice Blog Hop.
I wonder what the collective noun for a group of bloggers is, by the way? Feel free to make suggestions via the comments box at the end!
Why Bloggers Like Blog Chains & Hops
Bloggers like to take part in blog chains and hops because:
- chains provide a ready-made idea for a post
- they help bloggers reach new readers via the other links in the chain
- they’re fun!
But you can have too much of a good thing. A blog with a disproportionate number of chain-linked posts can be dull. But once in a while, I’m happy to take part, because it’s an opportunity to work with author/blogger friends whose company I enjoy and whose work I’m sure will interest my readers.
Passing the Baton to Me: Sally Jenkins
The first of these is the English writer Sally Jenkins, who kindly nominated me in her post a week ago. Sally is a highly experienced, talented and generous writer of short fiction. Two of her story collections have been published on Kindle (I enjoyed them both!) and she is currently tweaking her 2013 NaNoWriMo script into shape. Find out more about Sally on her excellent blog, on which she often shares useful tips and information about writing: http://www.sallyjenkins.wordpress.com.
As Sally’s post explains, the theme of this chain is “What Am I Working On?” Participants are required to answer these four questions about their writing (or at least whichever ones they wish to answer!):
- What am I working on?
- How does my work differ from others of its genre?
- Why do I write what I do?
- How does my writing process work?
Being the garrulous type, I’m happy to answer all of them! I write in two different genres, non-fiction and short fiction, so each of my answers will be in two parts.
What am I working on?
- Non-fiction I’m just putting the finishing touches to a book in support of ALLi‘s Open Up To Indies campaign, and then – new year, new book! I’m just starting to write The Author’s Guide to Blogging, to be published by SilverWood Books. Over the summer I’ll be revising my book promotion handbook, Sell Your Books!, also a SilverWood Original, ready for an updated second edition to be published in the autumn. Other plans include: an extended paperback edition of my e-book Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes, with lots of new material, and Travels with My Camper Van, based on my many blog posts about our family’s travels.
- Short fiction My first fiction project of 2014 is Quick Change, a collection of short stories and flash fiction on the theme of transition. Then I’ll be pressing on with Tuning In, a volume of short stories inspired by misheard snippets of BBC Radio 4. (I published a taster story as a Christmas ebook, The Owl and the Turkey.)
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
- Non-fiction My self-help books for authors are exceptionally friendly, positive and supportive, and my readers enjoy my optimistic, encouraging tone. My memoir writing combines my strong sense of fun and of the ridiculous with poignant observation.
- Short fiction The same combination, really – my writing reflects how I am in real life: sensitive but daft! My stories are also very positive. I don’t “do” sad – I’m an optimist but also a realist. Readers often remark that they enjoy the “light touch” of my writing, whether addressing serious or light-hearted issues.
Why do I write what I do?
- Non-fiction Self-help books for authors: because I have a lot of knowledge and experience that I can easily share, and I want to help other writers become more successful. The travel pieces: because wherever I travel, I find inspiration, and writing about it is my instinctive response. Memoirs: because I want to capture the memories for my daughter and the rest of my family, and because I worry that one day I won’t remember them myself.
- Fiction I’ve always wanted to write fiction and now at last, after a long full-time career in the real world, I have the time and leisure to fit fiction writing in to my daily life – although since I gave up my day job, my non-fiction writing and related freelance work has taken up most of my time.
How does my writing process work?
When I first get an idea, I plan a rough outline on paper (chapter headings for the non-fiction books, scribbly random notes for the rest) and let them simmer for a while. I keep a notebook by my bed and in my handbag to capture odd ideas as they occur, for later development. Occasionally I’ll write the first draft of a short story longhand, but I can do it much faster on my netbook or PC. However, this might change soon, as my friend the writer, poet and creative thinking coach Orna Ross has just recommended to me a voice-activated writing software package that sounds a great way of speeding up the writing part.
Once the first draft is down on paper or screen, I redraft and edit, over and over again, until the words are so familiar that I can do no more. If there’s time, I’ll leave the manuscript to one side for a few weeks, but I don’t always have that luxury with blog posts in particular.
I write best first thing in the morning, preferably in my pyjamas, and better still, in bed, but I rarely have the leisure to do that, as the school run calls. I write best of all when I’ve been in bed ill for a few days, when new story ideas emerge fully formed from my rested brain. I’m definitely at my most creative first thing, and my plan is to spend at least a couple of hours every morning doing creative writing, with the non-fiction work, marketing and related chores saved for the afternoon. I also like to blog as much as I can, but there’s never enough time to do everything – there are as many unwritten blog posts still stuck inside my head as there are online (and there are around 400 posts online across both my websites just now). In the evenings I prefer reading to writing. Every writer should be reading daily and widely.
Passing The Baton On…
So, now to introduce my three nominated writers. I can’t wait to read their answers to these questions!
- Canadian novelist Francis Guenette
Francis and I became friends on Twitter on the night of the last papal election, enjoying the banter on Twitter about this historic occasion. When it turned out that the new pope was also to be named Francis, I knew this friendship was meant to be! I have just been bowled over by her debut novel, Disappearing in Plain Sight, published early last year. (Read my review here.) Here’s Francis’s bio:
Francis Guenette has spent most of her life on the west coast of British Columbia. She lives with her husband and dog and finds inspiration for writing in the beauty and drama of their lakeshore cabin and garden. She has a graduate degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. She has worked as an educator, trauma counsellor and researcher. Disappearing in Plain Sight is her first novel. Find out more about Francis at her always interesting author website and blog: http://disappearinginplainsight.com
- English historical novelist Helen Hollick
I first met Helen at the launch of my book marketing handbook for authors, Sell Your Books! Helen and I share a publisher, the author services provider SilverWood Books, and we’ve since become good friends, although we live a hundred miles apart. The first book in Helen’s pirate fantasy series kept my spirits up during a pre-Christmas bout of bronchitis, and the sequels are now on my to-read list. Here’s my review of Sea Witch, one of my top reads for 2013. She’s also one of my mum’s favourite authors! Here’s how Helen describes herself:
Helen Hollick started writing pony stories as a young teenager. She moved onto science fiction and fantasy and then discovered the delight of writing historical fiction. Helen is published in the UK and the US with her books about King Arthur and the 1066 Battle of Hastings, officially making the USA Today best seller list with her novel Forever Queen. She also writes a series of historical adventure seafaring books inspired by her love of the Golden Age of Piracy. As a firm supporter of independent authors, publishers and bookstores, she has recently taken on the role of UK Editor for the Historical Novel Society Online Review for self-published historical fiction produced in the UK. Helen now lives in Devon with her husband, adult daughter and son-in-law – and a variety of pets, including a dog, two cats, and four horses. Her website is at www.helenhollick.net and her blog is at www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk.
- American novelist Amira Makansi
I met Amira via the Alliance of Independent Authors, whose blog of self-publishing advice I edit, and I was interested to hear about her debut The Sowing, which was co-written with two other authors – her mother and sister. Following her article about the experience on the ALLi blog, I’ve been following her progress with interest – she’s a lively, energetic and talented author and blogger who I’m sure is going to go far. She kindly asked me to be a guest on her blog before Christmas (here’s my post on her blog), and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to return the favour now. Here is what Amira has to say about herself:
Amira loves nothing more in life than reading and writing, except maybe hot wings. As an artist, she’s interested in pretty much anything except the real world. Give her science fiction, fantasy, or even a good historical fiction and she’ll love you forever. Her debut novel, the first book in the Seeds trilogy, co-written with her mother Kristy and sister Elena, is a science-fiction dystopia that explores what happens when corrupt politicians control the food system. She’s also got a bad case of wanderlust and has yet to ‘settle down’ like most normal people her age. You can find her in the hills and mountains of Oregon, the vineyards of France, or the streets of St. Louis. She’s currently working on a reader-driven blog serial in the dark fantasy or paranormal genre, which you can find here , the second book in the Seeds trilogy titled The Reaping, and an in-between novella set in the same world, as yet untitled.
Hop over to their websites now to find out more about them – and if you visit them again this time next week, you’ll find out more about what they’re working on too.
So, back to my question at the start of this post, what IS the collective noun for bloggers? Answers in the comments section please!
As regular readers will know, one of the most frequent topics on this blog is travel, usually involving our family motorhome (posh name) / camper van (what we usually call it). But when I was giving my website a New Year makeover, it occurred to me that there’s one sort of travel that I’ve neglected to mention here – and that’s virtual travel.
Have Blog, Will Travel
No, I haven’t devised a Star-Trek style teleporter – though I’d love one of those, if I could be confident that on arrival at my destination all my molecules would be reassembled in exactly the right place. What I’m talking about is guest blogging – where I’ve hopped across the ether to write a guest post on somebody else’s blog.
Just before Christmas, for example, I managed to appear both in the USA and Greece on the same day, thanks to two blogging friends, the US author Amira Makansi and writer/musician Jessica Bell, who is based in Athens, Greece, but comes from Australia, which pleasingly allows me to squeeze another continent into this conversation.
About Amira Makansi
I met Amira via the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), whose Self-Publishing Advice blog I edit. I was intrigued to learn that she had co-written her debut novel The Sowing with two other writers – her mother and her sister. She kindly wrote about her experience on the ALLi blog, then invited me back to hers to be interviewed about my own book, Coming To Terms With Type 1 Diabetes. You can read my interview – and lots of interesting posts by Amira and other guest bloggers – on her blog here.
Introducing Jessica Bell
Jessica Bell is another ALLi friend, a live wire with endless creative talents: she writes brilliant novels, poems and music. Though based in Athens, she also runs an annual Writers’ Retreat in Ithaca, mythical home of Odysseus and Penelope. Not quite as mythical as, say, Atlantis – it does actually still exist, as I can personally testify – I went there quite a few times in my pre-motherhood sailing days. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more peaceful or beautiful to pamper your muse. This probably makes Jess just about the coolest person I know.
One of the many other plates that Jessica spins is her blog The Alliterative Allomorph (yes, I also had to look up Allomorph in the dictionary), and every Wednesday she invites a guest blogger to sound off about any writing-related topic of their choice. Just before Christmas, she hosted a festive-themed post by me,. I realise this does not have the same topical appeal in early January, but it was great fun to write, allowing me to segue from my own frivolous, hot-off-the-virtual-press Christmas ebook to what in my opinion is the greatest ever Christmas novel – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. There’s something about Jess’s blog that makes me want to talk about the greats, because last time I was on there, I talked about Tolstoy.
A Virtual Paper Chain
I also took part last month in a mass blogging event, known as a blog hop. This requires a number of bloggers to blog on the same theme, at the same time, and link to each other’s posts, leading readers on an ethereal tour. This one was held on 21st December, the shortest day (in the northern hemisphere, anyway), and took as its theme “Casting Light Upon the Darkness”. Historical novelist Helen Hollick kindly organised this mass blog, which meant coordinating 30 bloggers in different locations and time zones, and it was fascinating to see each author’s individual take on the subject. You can see Helen’s starting point here, but if you want to hop straight to my post, you’ll find it here.
So those were my December outings. In future, whenever I write guest posts or am interviewed on other people’s blogs, I’ll be adding links here so that you can read them in situ – and while you’re at it, you’ll gain an introduction to another great blog too!
By the way, I also regularly host or interview other author bloggers on my Off The Shelf Book Promotions website: www.otsbp.com – but more about that another day.
Follow That Blog!
If all that blog-hopping is making you dizzy, there are two simple ways that you can keep up with my online wanderings without having to remember to click on my blog every week:
- sign up to receive each new post in your email inbox by clicking the “follow” button
- subscribe to my new e-newsletter, which provides will give you a monthly round-up of my online activity within a single email, once a month
You’ll find instructions on how to do both of these things in the right hand column on the home page of my blog.
And finally… happy New Year, wherever you happen to be, online or in the real world!
Welcome to the Winter Solstice Blog Hop – a grand tour of 30 blog posts, published simultaneoulsly on a shared theme.
My contribution is a short story written especially for the event: Fear of the Dark, which you can read in full below. Then, after the end of the story, you’ll find links to the other 29 posts. Enjoy!
FEAR OF THE DARK
A Short Story for the Winter Solstice
Hitting the “speaker” button on my mobile, I flung it down on my desk, as if physically distancing myself from my sister Kate’s voice would protect me from giving in to her. But I knew it was already a lost cause.
“I wouldn’t have asked you if our usual sitter hadn’t come down with the lurgy, but you know the rule – I can’t have her in contact with the kids until 48 hours after she last threw up, and I can’t sentence the whole family to a sickly Christmas just because of you.”
And so it was that I found myself heading out of town earlier this evening, down unlit country lanes, on the winter solstice, the worst night of the year for anyone who, like me, is afraid of the dark. Kate’s years of legal training were not in vain. She can argue that black is white and people will believe her.
But even if it had been broad daylight, I was still not ready to go back to Kate’s, just six months after last summer’s tragedy.
Well, ok, so it isn’t really a tragedy when a 92 year old woman dies. I’m only allowed to use that word very sparingly at work when I’m writing up the obituaries, and my editor would definitely blue-pencil it in this case. But it certainly was traumatic, most of all for me, because I found her. And the 92 year old woman in question was my lovely Great Aunt Sophie.
It was Midsummer’s Eve and we were all out at Kate’s huge place in the country to celebrate her husband Tom’s 40th birthday. Normally this would be a treat for me, escaping from the confines of my poky city-centre flat to soak up fancy food and drink at their expense. Tom’s family owns a posh car dealership, and what with Kate’s lawyer’s wages too, they’re loaded. For this party, they’d pushed the boat out even more than usual, because they were also celebrating Kate’s promotion to partner at her legal firm. It felt more like a wedding than a birthday bash, and, as ever, I felt like the bridesmaid, never the bride. But I’m not complaining – I could get used to prosecco.
Relatives were invited to come during the day, with friends and work colleagues piling over in the evening. After family games for all ages in the afternoon, there followed a buffet, then dancing to a live band in a marquee in the garden. The finale was a professional firework display, with the pyrotechnics let off from the stable yard giving everyone a fine view from the vast terrace. (It was a good thing there were never any horses in the stables, only Tom’s family’s collection of vintage cars.)
Great Aunt Sophie was at the daytime celebrations of course, as she had been at every family party that I remembered. She’d even been at our house on the night that I was born, and loved to tell me of the first time she saw me, just minutes after I was born. Apparently I had rosy pink cheeks, the loudest of cries and two big tears in the corners of my scrunched up little eyes.
Great Aunt Sophie was so much a part of my life that I couldn’t imagine ever being without her, even though I knew that eventually we must part. Whenever I’d been away from home for long, such as when I went off to university for three years, I’d keep a little bottle of her favourite perfume in my handbag, so that I could get a quick hit of her summery, flowery aura whenever I was missing her. But she showed no sign of giving up the ghost on the day of Kate and Tom’s party, beating us all hollow at cards and charades. She claimed to be unimpressed by Tom’s milestone birthday.
“Forty? That’s nothing! I’m in my 93rd year, I’ll have you know! That’s you twice over, young Tom, plus your Zoe and Archie too.”
Zoe and Archie are Tom and Kate’s kids, aged ten and three.
Zoe was particularly impressed.
“So you’re me nine times over, plus an Archie,” she gasped. “No wonder you get so tired, Auntie Sophie.”
Sure enough, Great Aunt Sophie was flagging by the time the evening guests arrived, and she pottered off contentedly to bed around 8pm, shrugging off sympathetic looks as she made herself her usual bedtime mug of cocoa.
“I’ll have the last laugh on you, my dears. I’ll be fresh as a daisy at dawn while you’re all out for the count nursing sore heads.”
I chinked my prosecco glass against her mug, suspecting from my already spinning head that she’d be proven right.
Next day I awoke at 8.47am, according to the clock ticking away annoyingly loudly on the bedside table in the guest room. Trying to remember exactly when and how I got to bed the night before, I staggered out onto the landing, kicking aside my discarded clothes on the floor, to search for orange juice, my preferred hangover remedy of choice. It was a glorious bright day already, with sun streaming in through the tall stained glass window that dominates the staircase, scattering coloured shadows across the pale parquet floor. I had to turn my head away from its glare, and as I did so, I caught sight at the far end of the corridor of a white heap, crumpled at the foot of the full-length mirror on the wall. Oh God, I thought, someone’s been sick in bed in the night and dumped their sheets there for Kate to wash – charming!
But then, my eyes adjusting to the shadows, I realised that it wasn’t a soiled sheet at all, but a pristine cotton nightdress – and contained within it was the frail body of my Great Aunt Sophie. I ran towards it, thinking I’d help her to her feet after a fall, but before I even reached her I realised she was beyond my help.
Even so, I reached out hopefully to touch the smooth, papery skin on the back of her hand, as familiar as the taut flesh on my own. Worn smooth as old silk by her age, exuding her favourite night-scented stock hand cream, its raised veins were still.
I only realised I had screamed out loud when I saw Tom behind me, reflected in the mirror, standing over us both. He’d staggered out of his and Kate’s room, looking nauseous.
“Christ,she looks how I feel!” he began. “I thought Sophie was on tea and cocoa, but maybe it was her who drank that litre bottle of sherry?”
Kate bustled along from their bedroom, hastily tying the belt of her scarlet kimono.
“Tom, you moron, she’s not drunk, she’s bloody dead!”
Tom’s face turned ashen. He must be mortified, I thought – no that’s the wrong word, change it to gutted.
A more appropriate choice, it turned out, as straight away he dashed to the bathroom to be noisily, violently sick.
I never saw Great Aunt Sophie again.
After the funeral was over – I have to report that the post-mortem decided it was natural causes, by the way – normal life carried on for us all, except Great Aunt Sophie, of course. The only difference for me, apart from Sophie’s excruciating absence, was that I began to find excuses to avoid going back to Kate’s house. I couldn’t bear to see again the place where my beloved aunt had died. Until tonight, I thought Kate had understood. She had at least been letting me off the hook.
Of course, I knew I’d have to go there some time. I tried to bring my objective journalistic judgement into play. Surely I wasn’t going to let the inevitable death of one old lady cut me off from the rest of my family? But why did it have to be tonight, of all nights? The longest, darkest night, which I usually spend at home with all the lights on, the telly on full blast, trying to distract me from my fear of being alone in the dark.
I don’t know why the dark upsets me so, but I can’t remember a time when it didn’t. I always slept with a nightlight on in my childhood bedroom, swapping it for a brighter one after Kate had moved into her own room. I even took my nightlight away with me to university.
Although as a local paper reporter, I’m positively penniless compared to Kate, I’m still happy to spend a sizable chunk of money on my electricity bill every month, just so that I can keep all my lights on. I once went to stay with an environmentally-minded friend who only ever lit up the room she was actually in, turning the lights off and on obsessively wherever she went around her house. If I had to do that in the winter, I think I’d die. Either that, or I’d have to move into a bedsit, so I had only one room to worry about.
I think in a former life I must have been something like a swallow. I need light and warmth to thrive, and I long to fly south as soon as the nights draw in each winter. Then I’d only return when the nights are only as long as the time I need to sleep.
Fear of the dark dominates my life. Although the power never goes off in the city, I keep a wind-up torch and candles in every room, in a place where I know I can put my hand on them, just in case we’re ever plunged unexpectedly into blackness.
What would happen if I had to spend time in the dark? I don’t know, because I’ve never had the courage to find out.
When I got to Kate and Tom’s this evening, my heart was still pounding from driving through dark lanes with no street lighting. How do people live out in the sticks like this, with only the moon and stars to brighten the night? I’d had to drive the last three miles with the map-reading light on in my car to compensate. When I reached their house, I pulled my car up as close to their front door as I could. Thankfully, their security light came on just after I swung the car door open. My foot crunched down on the gravel, sounding for all the world as if I’d stepped on a pile of light bulbs. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
When Kate let me in, I realised she must have been feeling guilty about dragging me out here, as she’d crammed the coffee table full of upmarket snacks – olives, pistachios, kettle chips,Belgian chocolates – alongside a newly-opened bottle of Rioja on the hearth. She knows Rioja is my absolute favourite, even better than prosecco in the winter.
“I can’t drink that, I’ve got to drive home later,” I objected ungratefully, already worrying that those lanes would be even darker after midnight.
“Don’t be stupid, you must stay here, I’ve got the guest room ready,” said Kate.
I thought it better not to tell her that I wasn’t prepared to go upstairs. After all, that’s where the childrens’ bedrooms were. What kind of babysitter was I?
Kate chucked a couple more logs on the blazing open fire before tipping about a third of the bottle of Rioja into one of those big balloon glasses, the comforting sort that sit nicely in your hand in pubs, the kind they give you to make you drink more. I glanced around the room, scanning for candles. There were plenty of big fancy scented ones with multiple wicks in glass jars, the sort that cost about as much as a standard lamp. I felt in my pocket to reassure myself that I’d got matches and my smallest torch to hand.
“We’ve got a taxi booked for half past midnight, so we’ll see you about one,” said Kate, wrapping a crimson pashmina about her shoulders. “But feel free to go to bed before we get back if you want to. That would be fine.”
I scowled. There was no way I was going upstairs. There were shadows and dark corners, and no light switch within reach before you got there. I picked up the Sky remote to distract myself. My self-hypnosis would begin the minute they went out the door.
A slight figure in pink Barbie pyjamas appeared in the living room doorway.
“Hello, Emma,” said Zoe, who recently dropped the Auntie title on the basis that she’s nearly a teenager. (Nearly? She’s 10 – she must be as bad at maths as Kate.) I hadn’t seen her for a few months, and for a moment I was startled by how similar she is to Kate – same long-lashed green eyes, same fine dark hair, falling in shiny waves to her shoulders, which, just like Kate, she shrugs in a particular way when she’s restless or bored. In fact, I always think of Kate as being about 10, as that was how old she was when I first became aware of ages. I must have been about 5. Archie is much more like me: straight lighter hair, pale blue eyes, serious look. Sometimes, when we’re all out together – which has happened much less often lately – people assume he’s mine and that only Zoe is Kate’s. It’s funny how these genes seem to side-step through family trees sometimes, mannerisms and ways of speaking too.
“Archie’s in bed already, because he’s been a bit zonked since having his latest cold ,” Zoe was saying. “I’m off to bed too now, night night.”
She came over to give me and her mum a kiss.
“Please will you tuck me in before you go out, Mum?”
So much for the nearly-teenager.
I awoke, shivering on the sofa, just as the ten o’clock news was finishing. The log fire had dwindled to ash and barely a spark. Hauling myself up off the sofa, I shuffled over to the fireplace to add a handful of kindling then chucked on a couple of logs. The logs weighed much less than I expected from the look of them; they’d probably been stacked in the stables to dry since last winter. What luxury to have so much space. Soon sparks were crackling like gun shot in the grate, popping out of the dried ivy clinging to the bark. I jumped at every tiny explosion.
Turning my stiff back to the fire to warm it, I admonished myself that I still hadn’t adjusted my office chair as I’d meant to. I always seemed too engrossed in bashing out my latest news story to remember to sit with the health-and-safety-approved posture.
It was only while I was surveying the room with a rapidly warming bottom, like some lordly Victorian gentleman, that I remembered that Kate and Tom didn’t bother with curtains in their house. All around me, in every wall, were large, black windows, with views of nothing but the darkest of nights. Why did they need so many windows, for heaven’s sake? I could see one wherever I turned. And I really didn’t want to look.
Ever since we read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw at school when I was about 14, I’ve had a thing about not looking out of windows after dark. I have a vivid memory of terrifying scenes in which the dismissed, disgraced servants come back to press their faces against the chill glass at night, sinister with some unspoken threat. I cannot think of anything more frightening. I’m not even sure now whether I’ve misremembered the story, but I daren’t re-read it to check, in case it makes my fear worse, not better.
I cupped my hands round my eyes, attempting to create the effect of a horse’s blinkers, screening myself from the threat of the dark windows. I tried concentrating on the telly, but was distracted by my pulse thundering too loud in my ears. I rummaged in my pocket for my matches and stooped down to light an exotic-looking, five-wicked candle in the fireplace. I didn’t like to calculate the cost of each minute’s burning of those five little flames, I just needed all the light that I could get.
Slumping back on the sofa, gazing unseeingly at Kate’s huge television screen, I tried some deep breathing exercises to calm my nerves. The sound of my pulse was just receding when there came another noise – the creaking of a door. I gave a little shriek and looked around, before realising, to my relief, that it was upstairs. It was probably just Zoe going to the loo or getting a glass of water, rather than a burglar or a ghost down by me. I tried to attend to the panel game that was just starting up Channel 4, and to ignore the glass of Rioja tempting me to take Dutch courage. Zoe’s bedroom door creaked again as she pattered back across the parqueted landing to her room.
Then just before the start of Round 3, a noisy coughing started upstairs. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, hoping the noise would quickly abate. The cough was shrill, definitely Archie, not Zoe.
His big sister will sort him out, I told myself, hopefully. They don’t need me upstairs. I’m not going upstairs, anyway. I’m staying by this bright and cosy fire.
As the intense jasmine scent of the candle started to weave its way down into my lungs, a little spluttery cough of my own brought me to my senses. Kate may be my sister, I suddenly thought, but she’s also a lawyer. I daren’t let her son die of neglect just because I’m too afraid to go upstairs.
On impulse, I knocked back half the glass of Rioja. There was still time for it to wear off before I had to drive. Then I seized a pale woollen shawl that was lying artistically draped across the rocking chair and wrapped it tightly around my shoulders, symbolic armour against the dark. Cautiously I crossed hall to the foot of the dark oak stairs and began to climb them carefully.
Please stop coughing, please stop coughing, I urged Archie at every tread. Don’t make me come all the way up there.
I proceeded as quietly as I could, as if silent passage might reduce any risk lurking in the shadows.
Archie went on coughing.
Having reached the dog-leg half-landing, I hesitated for a moment, deciding whether to continue. The higher I went, the darker it got. I couldn’t believe Kate hadn’t left the landing light on. Weren’t unlit stairs a tripping hazard? It wasn’t as if Kate couldn’t afford the bill.
Archie’s coughing was becoming shriller, tighter, grating on my nerves.
At least he’s still breathing, I comforted myself. No real harm done yet. But what was Zoe thinking? Why wasn’t she in there helping her poor little brother?
A tiny streak of moonlight glinted down through the skylight, and as I reached the top of the stairs and turned left towards the children’s bedrooms, I stood stock still. For there, at the far end, who should I see but Great Aunt Sophie, standing in the spot where she had died? Shrouded in white, she stared back at me. Her long pale hair had come adrift from her habitual bun and streamed down her shoulders, thicker and lusher than I’d ever seen it in life.
Who was it that said “Death becomes her?” And why do such random thoughts spring into our brains at the least helpful time?
I didn’t know I’d screamed until Zoe flung open her bedroom door and flicked on the hall light switch, casting a full 100 watts upon me – and on Great Aunt Sophie. Except it wasn’t Great Aunt Sophie at all, but me, staring at myself in the full-length mirror like a frightened rabbit caught in car headlights.
Then I realised that Archie had stopped coughing.
Tearing into his room, with Zoe right behind me, I snapped on the light switch on the wall (no nightlights in this house, cruel mother that Kate is) and dropped to my knees at the side of his tiny bed. Archie’s is the sort of bed that you pull out to make a bit bigger as your child grows. It reminds me of a child-sized coffin. Archie’s eyes were closed, his cheeks pale, his body still, and sticking out of his mouth was a small plastic toy zebra. I grabbed it quick, flung it across the room, and, seizing him by the shoulders, I began to shake him.
“Archie, Archie, for God’s sake, breathe!”
After what seemed like hours, Archie stirred slightly and took a noisy deep gasp. Once he’d puffed it out, he resumed his normal steady breathing, tinged with a snuffly baby snore.
As I lay him gently down on his side, he didn’t even open his eyes. Hoping that my vigorous shaking hadn’t dislocated any bones, I was relieved to see him settle immediately into the easy sleep of a small, untroubled if slightly nasally-challenged child.
Zoe, meanwhile, calmly collected the toy zebra from the other side of the room, gave it a token wipe on her pyjamas, and stood it up neatly beside its twin on the gangplank of Archie’s Noah’s Ark.
“I don’t know why you’re making such a drama out of it, Emma,” said Zoe. “Anyone would think you were scared of the dark.”
I emitted a false little laugh and hoped it fooled her.
“Haha. Back to bed now, Zoe, or your mum will be cross with you.”
“No, she’ll be cross with you, Auntie Emma,” replied Zoe firmly.
Forgetting her near-teenage status one more, Zoe trotted obediently back to bed.
After I’d made sure there were no other choking hazards within Archie’s reach, I pulled his door to not quite closed, to be on the safe side, and turned back to stare at myself in the mirror. With Kate’s pale shawl around me and the shadows cast across my face by the moonlight, I really did look a lot like Great Aunt Sophie. As I stood there smiling at my reflection, I felt strangely comforted. Maybe she wasn’t as far away as I had thought.
As I pottered slowly back down the stairs, I began to wonder what my children will look like, when I get round to having them. Will they get any of Sophie’s genes, and mine, or will they turn out like Kate or Mum or Dad? I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.
I finished the Rioja while I was busy writing in the shorthand pad that I always keep in my satchel a garden centre shopping list. I was planning the scented plants I’m going to put in my window boxes this spring: narcissus, wallflowers, hyacinths, and Great Aunt Sophie’s favourite, of course, night-scented stock. When the days are at their longest, I’ll be sitting on my balcony, a glass of something cool and refreshing in my hand. I’m, looking forward to gazing out to the views beyond the city, breathing in the perfumes of the flowers of long summer nights.
The scrunch of car tyres on gravel alerted me to Kate and Tom’s arrival. Kate thought I didn’t notice her fall off one of her designer heels as she emerged from the cab, but I’d seen them through one of the big picture windows in the lounge.
“Kate, had you ever noticed how much I look like Great Aunt Sophie?” I said casually when she came in, hoping that she would agree.
Kate gave me that knowing look that only big sisters can pull off.
“Of course you bloody do, have you only just noticed? Now get to bed, you look knackered.”
I heaved myself up from the comfortable wallowing position that I’d sunk into on the soft leather sofa, and gave her a light goodnight kiss, though not so light that it didn’t leave a Rioja-coloured mark on her cheek.
“Thanks for having me,” I said, unnecessarily, and trotted off upstairs, not forgetting on the way past the children’s room to give Great Aunt Sophie a little wave in the mirror.
And now, on with the blog hop!
The theme of the blog hop is throwing light amidst the darkness, and it’s down to each author to interpret this brief however they wish. They might unravel a mystery, reveal a little-known fact, or share a short story with darkness and light at its heart – or anything else that takes their fancy.
Whatever the blogger’s take on the theme, you can be sure each post will brighten up this longest, darkest night for us all. (Unless, of course, you’re reading this from the southern hemisphere, in which case you’re enjoying your longest day!)
Huge thanks to the tireless historical novelist Helen Hollick inspiring and organising us all.
And now, pour yourself a drop of your favourite midwinter tipple, sit back and enjoy the journey…. And when it’s over, take heart, for after tomorrow, the nights will start drawing out again!
Happy Winter Solstice!
Take the Tour
- Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
- Prue Batten Casting Light….
- Alison Morton Shedding light on the Roman dusk Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Anna Belfrage Let there be light!
- Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
- Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
- Janet Reedman The Winter Solstice Monuments
- Petrea Burchard : Darkness – how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveway Prize!
- Richard Denning : The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Pauline Barclay : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
- David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
- David Pilling : Greek Fire – Plus a Giveaway Prize!
- Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark (that’ll be me!)
- Derek Birks : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
- Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
- Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
- Wendy Percival : Ancestors in the Spotlight
- Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves Plus a Giveaway Prize
- .Suzanne McLeod : The Dark of the Moon
- Katherine Bone : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
- Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
- Edward James : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
- Janis Pegrum Smith : Into The Light – A Short Story
- Julian Stockwin : Ghost Ships – Plus a Giveaway Present
- Manda Scott : Dark into Light – Mithras, and the older gods
- Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
- Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire – 18th Century protests against enclosure
- Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey?
- Sky Purington : How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
- Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression