In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I wrote about a sight I’d like to spot more often in the Cotswolds – although they are beautiful enough as they are!
Driving along a lane in the high fields near Newark Park, I spot a mirage-like splash of blue big enough to fill a field. Or is it mauve? Rippling in the late afternoon breeze, the flowering crop is changing colour as readily as the two-tone tonic suits favoured by Mods in the 1960s. Oil poured on water morphs from black to rainbow hues because the floating film is just a molecule thick, but when I park alongside the field, these plants are chest high.
I’m used to seeing cars stopping on the roadside in early summer to photograph swathes of pillar-box red poppies among the crops. A few years ago, a field just off the A46 was as densely carpeted with poppies as the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz. An instant tourist attraction, it triggered a proliferation of social media selfies.
The mauve flowers – or are they blue? – in this field by Newark Park have a far subtler beauty. It is of course a field of flax, the first I’ve seen for a long time, and an increasingly rare sight in the Cotswolds. How I wish I could substitute flax for the ubiquitous rapeseed, whose vivid flowers look all wrong in our gentle landscape. They also make me sneeze like one possessed, a yellow morning mist floating above their fields like mustard gas. While I don’t expect farmers to choose crops for their good looks, I do wish flax could be more profitable.
Flax, aka linseed, is certainly a useful and versatile crop. Chez Young, we add linseeds to our breakfast cereal and salads for their health benefits. Linseeds are rich in fibre, protein, Vitamin B, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids.
I wish the latter didn’t sound so unappetising: “Mmm, fatty acids,” said Homer Simpson, never.
Research indicates that linseeds improve digestive health and lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and cancer risk. If that’s not enough to win your heart, linseed oil goes into paints, varnishes, animal feeds and cricket bats.
The stalk, with fibres three times stronger than cotton, is the source of linen. The Ancient Egyptians considered linen a symbol of purity and allowed only priests and mummies to wear it. Much as I love linen clothes, that’s not a sacrifice I’d be prepared to make. Flax fibres are also used in the manufacture of cigarette papers (boo!) and teabags (hurrah!)
So why don’t we grow more flax on the rolling hills of the Cotswolds? When I google its preferred growing conditions, I discover it’s not just a matter of money. Flax thrives on alluvial soil, ie rich in sediment deposited by running water on a floodplain. With an average elevation of over 100m in the Cotswolds, I’m guessing alluvial soil is not our long suit.
As the sky begins to darken ahead of a thunderstorm, I realise I must make the most of this rare scene, so I capture it on my smartphone before returning to my car – and, like a tourist on my home turf, to social media.
SERIES OF GENTLE MYSTERY NOVELS INSPIRED BY THE SEASONS IN THE COTSWOLDS
Watching the changing seasons in the Cotswolds is one of the inspirations for my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, which follows the course of village life from one summer to the next through the eyes of newcomer Sophie Sayers.
A post about how I choose launch dates for my novels plus a quick survey of other authors’ preferences
While I don’t consider myself to be superstitious, I’ve got into the habit of publishing each new book on a date that is personally significant to me.
Choice of publishing date is a luxury that only independent authors can enjoy:
We call the shots ourselves, rather than being dependent on the huge engines of trade publishing companies, which typically take a year or more to launch a book from the date the author delivers the final manuscript.
My first novel, Best Murder in Show, was launched on 1st April, 2017 – not because I was staging it as a practical joke for April Fool’s Day, but because it happens to be the birthday of my good friend and mentor, Orna Ross, author, poet, and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, for which I’m the UK Ambassador.
For my most recent novel, Murder Lost and Found, I chose my daughter Laura’s 18th birthday. Not only was it of course Laura’s majority, but the novel marked a kind of coming of age for Sophie Sayers too, marking the end of her first year in her adopted village of Wendlebury Barrow and a new confidence and assurance for Sophie that has been developing throughout the series.
Being able to publish on dates that are important to me gives me great satisfaction – the icing on the cake of completing a project – but I wondered whether this habit was just personal whimsy or common practice. When I asked some author friends, I was gratified to find I’m not alone in my approach, as these examples show:
Historical novelist Clare Flynn, on her latest novel, Sisters at War, set in Liverpool during the Second World War:
“I chose May 1st 2021 to launch Sisters at War as it was the 80th anniversary of the terrible May Blitz on Liverpool in 1941.”
Alison Morton, who writes alternative history and thrillers, decided to make her Roma Nova short story collection a gift to herself:
“This was the first time I’d dared to put together a collection of short stories, so I thought it would be fun to give birth to it on my own birthday on 19th October. The stories supplement, precede or follow the stories in the core Roma Nova novels – little episodes of their own. It was delightful to wake up to a mix of “Happy publication day” and “Happy birthday” greetings. I drank bubbly that evening in double celebration.”
Other author friends have published to honour family members – for example, Pauline Baird Joneswill launch Cosmic Boom on her late mother’s birthday, 20th July, and Kristina Adams published her non-fiction book, Writing Myths, on her grandmother’s birthday the year she passed away.
Tom Evans has a very appropriate strategy for Soulwaves : A Future History and Soulwaves: Insertions, both of which feature the Moon almost as a character:
“I published on the first new moon of the year, this year and last, and then followed up with snippets of ancillary, augmenting content every subsequent new and full moon. My choice of date may have no significance, but it keeps me aiming at something – with a reminder in the sky when not cloudy!”
Amie McCracken had a very specific reason for fixing the launch date for her latest novella, which is set in the USA and Mexico:
“I chose the Day of the Dead for Leaning Into the Abyss because it features as the day my protagonist finally figures out her life! (And it’s a story about grieving for a lost loved one.)”
Mark Haydenhad a more pragmatic approach for the ninth in his King’s Watch fantasy series:
“Some indie authors are a lot more casual about publication. I adhere to the belief that the best day to publish a book is yesterday, and I put them out as soon as they’re ready. However, even I admit that I rushed out the ebook of Five Leaf Clover a good week ahead of the paperback because the UK bank holiday weekend was coming up and I wanted to give my readers an incentive to buy it. I also admit that my wife did once tell me that under no circumstances could I publish a book on her birthday. I know my priorities.”
Which Book Will I Publish Next?
So when will I be publishing my next book and what will it be?
Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, a new standalone novella – fingers crossed for 1st August (my maternal grandmother’s birthday)
Scandal at St Bride’s, the third St Bride’s School novel – before the end of the 2021 (exact date yet to be decided)
I’m also writing May Sayers Comes Home, a novella about Sophie Sayers’ aunt; a travel memoir,Travels with my Camper Van, and planning new additions to the Tales from Wendlebury Barrowseries of novelettes.
So I’d better get off my blog now and get writing!
In my latest column for the Tetbury Advertiser, I was drawing on memories of a visit to Highgrove Gardens on a glorious summer’s day and sharing how it inspired me to start a new feature in my own garden.
My recent visit to Highgrove to admire HRH’s numerous quirky gardens-within-a-garden inspired me to start a new feature in my own plot. I christened it my Circle of Life Garden, as it’s designed to provide perspective and reassurance in a time when we are all a little more conscious than usual of our mortality. In lighter moments, I call it my Pull Yourself Together Patch or the Get a Grip Garden, but the principle remains the same.
My Circle of Life Garden
At the centre of the feature is a small buddha statue that a neighbour wanted shot of. Recycling or reincarnation? Either way, it seemed an appropriate starting point.
On each side of the buddha are ferns, chosen to represent prehistory. According to the Eden Project, ferns have been around for 350 million years. Predating dinosaurs, they were among the first land-dwelling plants to create the oxygen essential for the origins of man. What’s not to love about ferns?
Representing more recent history, between the buddha and the ferns I’ve laid out all the fragments of china and glass that my husband has unearthed while digging the garden. No, they’re not Roman relics, but refuse buried by the previous occupants of my Victorian cottage before the invention of the council dustcart.
Symbolising the present are wallflowers given to me by my father a couple of weeks ago and a cyclamen my sister brought me when she came to lunch last week.
Looking to the future, snowdrops and crocus bulbs planted beneath a bare patch of earth in front of the buddha are scheduled to emerge next spring.
All of these features are set against a backdrop of rotting logs, the remains of a plum tree that died of old age last year. As the logs decay, they are giving new life to bugs and beetles, which in turn feed small wild mammals and birds, and so the food chain goes on.
Thus in a compact space just a few feet wide, my Circle of Life Garden celebrates the past and the present and promises hope for the future. It’s certainly cheered me up.
There’s only one missing piece of the jigsaw: I’m still searching for a truly immortal plant. Japanese knotweed need not apply.
In Other News
In all of my novels, gardens feature prominently, whether in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, where Sophie Sayers nurtures the garden she’s inherited from her late great aunt, or at St Bride’s School nearby, where Gemma Lamb finds peace and solitude in the extensive school landscape.
I’ve just published a new story, The Clutch of Eggs, that starts off with an episode in Sophie’s garden, when her cat Blossom brings her in a wild bird’s egg, unleashing a comical chain of events that ends up putting Wendlebury Barrow on the map for all the wrong reasons.
A quick read (a third the length of one of my novels) in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, features all the regular characters from the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, as well as some engaging new ones, including a handsome tourist, a trio of birdwatching brothers, and an affectionate dachshund named Bunty.
The Clutch of Eggs is now available as a a postcard-sized paperback (6″ x 4″) and in all the popular ebook formats. You’ll find the buying links for both below.
In the meantime, here’s the opening chapter to whet your appetite.
CHAPTER 1 – The Foundling Egg
“Look at this, Hector!”
I held out my hand to reveal what I’d carried so carefully all the way from my cottage to Hector’s House, the village bookshop.
Instead of giving me my usual morning hug before flipping the door sign to “open”, Hector (my boyfriend as well as my boss) stood back in awe of the object’s fragility.
“What’s that, your breakfast? It’s a bit on the small side. You’re not on a diet, are you?”
I stroked the pristine white shell with my fingertip.
“No, silly, it’s a bird’s egg. What sort of monster do you take me for? I don’t eat birds’ eggs for breakfast. Apart from hens’ eggs, I mean.”
I was glad I’d had toast that morning instead.
“That’s no hen’s egg. It’s far too small. Did you get it from the village shop? I’d heard Carol had started stocking quails’ eggs, but I thought they were speckled.”
“Yes, she has, and they are. She’s thrilled to have something to put on her Q shelf at last.” Carol organises her stock alphabetically to make things easier to find. “But I’ve no idea what sort of bird laid this egg.”
Hector slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the key to his flat above the bookshop.
“I’ll fetch the vintage Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs from my curiosities collection upstairs. That’ll help us identify it.”
He turned the door sign to “open” before dashing outside and disappearing round the corner of the shop.
“What if it’s not a vintage bird?” I called after him, but his footsteps were already pounding up the stairs to his flat.
I like to tease Hector about the funny old books that fill his spare bedroom. He’s never read most of them, he just likes the look and feel of them. I can’t understand why he doesn’t add a second-hand department to the shop. He’d have more than enough stock, and it would provide a useful source of extra income for the business. We’re always looking for new income streams. It’s not easy keeping a rural bookshop in profit.
The sun was shining brightly now, so, still cradling the egg with my spare hand, I propped the door open with our cast-iron doorstop, which is shaped like a pile of old books. The fresh spring air was full of the scent of new leaves, the shrubs and trees along the high street acid green with new growth. I lingered on the threshold for a deep breath before going back inside, where I gently set my egg on the trade counter to await Hector’s verdict. To make sure it wouldn’t roll away and fall on the floor, I surrounded it with a little wall of stationery.
As Hector’s footsteps thundered back down the stairs, I headed for the tearoom, which is my domain, and fired up the coffee machine. We always start our working day with a caffeine fix. The smell of fresh coffee helps lure our first customers in off the street, too – mums returning from the school run.
Hector strode back into the shop brandishing a small hardback with a plain tan cover. Taking his usual seat at the trade counter, he started to flick through its yellowing pages. He didn’t look up when I set down in front of him a tiny espresso cup branded with The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. My wit was wasted on him. To be fair, the book he was reading was engrossing. On almost every page there was a precise and beautiful watercolour illustration of a bird’s egg, each one different.
“Surprisingly few eggs seem to be plain white like yours. Or the same shape.”
I gazed at the egg nestling in its pen of pens.
“Surely it’s just egg-shaped? Hence the expression.”
He held the book up to show me.
“This one’s the right colour, but it’s longer and thinner than your egg, while this one is more rounded.” He paused at the swift’s page. “The swift’s is plain white, but it’s too long.”
“Isn’t it too early for a swift, anyway?”
“Yes, you’re right. They won’t arrive for another week or two yet.” He flicked through a few more pages. The lesser-spotted woodpecker lays small white eggs the right shape, but I doubt you’ve got a woodpecker in your garden. They’re a bit shy and more of a forest dweller. Besides, it says here they don’t start laying till May.” He looked up from the book. “You did find this egg in your garden, didn’t you?”
I beamed with pride.
“I didn’t. Blossom did. She brought it in to me this morning. Isn’t she clever?” Blossom is my kitten. Hector’s not keen on cats, but I thought this show of skill might raise her in his estimation. “Do you realise how gentle Blossom must have been to pick up something as fragile as an egg in her mouth without breaking it? To carry it all the way from wherever she found it to my kitchen? I think she meant it as a present for me.”
Hector moved the book closer to his eyes. The print was tiny. Encouraged by his silence, I continued.
“At first, I thought she’d squashed her ping-pong ball, but no. It’s as perfect an egg as you’ll find anywhere in nature.”
Hector harrumphed. “I just hope Blossom didn’t despatch the mother bird while she was at her nest.” He shot me a mournful look. “Although that would cut short the mother’s distress at losing her egg.”
A wave of vicarious guilt swept over me.
“There aren’t any nests in my garden,” I began, despite realising I hadn’t actually checked. Might nests be hidden among the fresh spring foliage? My dense evergreens would also provide perfect camouflage.
Our conversation was cut short by a hum of chatter approaching from the direction of the school, so Hector set down the book to continue his investigations later.
A chilly breeze struck up as the school run-mums arrived. Although reluctant to shut out the spring, I closed the door behind them.
It was only when I was starting to serve their coffee that I realised Hector hadn’t given me my morning hug.
Like to know what happens next? Here are the buying links again:
As ever, if you read and enjoy this book, I would really appreciate it if you take a moment to leave a sentence or two on the website where you bought it saying why you liked it. Good reviews encourage other readers to buy my books!
I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters, a light-hearted story about a village knitting campaign that goes somewhat awry, with entertaining results.
Here’s how some early reviewers have described it so far:
“Top writing!” “Warm and witty”. “Heartwarming.” “Totally enjoyable and unputdownable.” “Can’t wait for more.”
The Natter of Knitters is the first in a new spin-off series from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries called Tales from Wendlebury Barrow. It features Sophie Sayers and many of the key players from my village mystery series, plus the usual intrigue, village gossip and humour, but without the murders! Each story will also introduce a new character from the village. This time, it’s Ariel Fey, an enigmatic loner new to the village who hopes to turn self-sufficient.
Each of the Tales will be a quick read, about a quarter as long as one of my novels. Technically speaking, that makes it a novelette or a short novella.
Why the Short Format?
The idea for this new series came to me last summer when I was writing The Pride of Peacocks, the short novella available exclusively to those who join my Readers’ Club mailing list. (Join here if you haven’t already done so and would like to claim your free ebook!) I really enjoyed writing it, and readers have also been enthusiastic.
More Fun Topics to Follow
The shorter format will allow me to cover many more topics in a shorter time-frame than if I saved every idea for a novel of its own. And I have plenty of ideas, inspired by things I see in real life all around me every day, here in the beautiful Cotswolds countryside, where I’ve lived in a close-knit village for nearly thirty years.
Other topics that I’m storing up in my ideas book include:
wild birds and birds’ nests
a crash-landing of a hot-air balloon
a mysterious field full of poppies
a jigsaw puzzle race
One unifying factor will be that the title of each will be a collective noun, whether one that’s long-established, such as The Pride of Peacocks, or a whimsical one invented by me, as in The Natter of Knitters! (I am having fun!)
I will of course be continuing to write full-length novels as well. The sixth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder Your Darlings, is due out at the end of February, and I’m half-way through writing the second St Bride’s story, Secrets at St Bride’s, with a view to publishing in the early summer.
Ebook and Paperback
The Natter of Knittersis now available in ebook and paperback. Yes, paperback too! Although it’s much shorter than a novel, I know that a lot of my readers prefer paperbacks to ebooks, and I didn’t want to let them down.
So, inspired by the little books you often see by the till in high street bookshops, such as the Penguin 80 series, I decided to issue the Tales of Wendlebury Barrow in a similar format. The size of a picture postcard (6″ x 4″), they are adorably cute, and perfect for slipping into your pocket or handbag to read on the move. They also make great gift ideas, fitting neatly inside a birthday card.
How to Order Your Copy
Paperback: click here to order online. From March, you should also be able to order it via your local bookshop – just quote ISBN 9781911223511 to help them find it on their database. (If you have trouble sourcing a paperback, just send me a message and I’ll despatch one to you myself and take your payment online.)
Ebook:click here to place your order in your preferred ebook format, wherever you are in the world.
Now to Whet Your Appetite with the First Couple of Pages…
1 Flash Bang
A bomb in Wendlebury Barrow?
Clive Wren, the local paper’s photographer, could hardly believe his good fortune. For once he was in the right place at the right time to scoop a news story worthy of the front page. It made a welcome change from his usual tedious assignments, snapping endless staged presentations of giant cheques or forced line-ups of local sports teams, new school classes or old biddies celebrating significant birthdays and anniversaries. This was the closest he’d ever get to his dream of reporting from a war zone, and he was going to make the most of it.
Along with the rest of the crowd assembled around the village green, Clive had jumped at the sound of the explosion. Without missing a beat, he pressed and held down the shutter button to capture a series of photos a split second apart. Thus he recorded the passage of time as charcoal-black smoke emerged from the device hidden in an innocuous clump of grass in front of the old oak tree. Dark tendrils curled up among the branches and reached out to wrap tentacles around onlookers. And on the precise spot where the device had exploded, to everyone’s surprise, there emerged like a genie from a lamp—
But there was no time to gawp. Clive had better call it a wrap and scoot back to the office before any locals shared the photos they’d snapped on their phones, which, via social media, might reach his picture editor before he did. If he was quick, he’d just have time before his next shoot at Slate Green. He could gather the facts later.
AND FINALLY… Enter my Readers’ Club Prize Draw to Win Sophie’s Luxury Scarf
On 14th February, I’ll be holding a prize draw in which one lucky member of my Readers’ Club will win the scarf knitted by Sophie in The Natter of Knitters, in four beautiful floral blues, in a luxury mix of merino, cashmere and silk. If you’re not yet a member of my Readers’ Club, click here to sign up now, and I’ll add your name to the draw.
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.