Be Warned: These are the scribblings of a writer unruly, unsupervised, and largely unrepentant

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Exclusive Excerpt from "Everything He Never Said"

 Today, I'm sharing with you a short excerpt from Everything He Never Said. Enjoy the read!



In the workshop they went through a horse racing craze. The young men clubbed together and backed several horses at 6d each way. Charlie fetched the paper with the horse races listed in it from the local newsagent’s shop, where two girls giggled and whispered behind the counter. He wasn’t sure whether they were giggling at him— didn’t think he’d done anything particularly funny, except walk in the door— but after a few weeks of these shenanigans, he plucked up the courage and said to the pretty one, “Can I take you to the pictures on Saturday?”

His heart sank when she replied, “Sorry, I wash my hair on Saturdays.” Well, she did have nice hair. Soft, shiny and wavy. He’d never seen anything like it, but then, he didn’t get out much.

At that point, being Charlie, and thinking “in for a penny, in for a pound”, he asked the second girl too. Serve the other one right. A man had his pride.

“Sorry, I have to go out with my mother on Saturday,” said the second choice, wisely perhaps.

As he left the shop, he heard them giggling. Again. Apparently, he ought to be a comedian at the music hall.

He decided not to fetch the papers anymore and let one of the other boys go.

Not long after that, however, the chap who went in his place to fetch the racing papers, came back and said the girls in the shop wanted to know whether Charlie was going to the roller-skating rink that night.

The ‘rink’ was in the old drill hall, on nights when the building was not being used by the Home Guard or requisitioned for a Whist Drive.

Charlie hadn’t thought about going skating that night, but, as it happened, he had nothing better to do, did he? Perhaps he’d give the girls another chance.

He cycled from St. Mary’s to Ramsey and was bathed in sweat by the time he got to the drill hall. He wore his fire service trousers, a roll-neck pullover and a silk scarf round his neck, the end of it flung over one shoulder— the way he’d seen it done in a film at the cinema. The way he used to imagine he’d wear one to fly up in the air in his own machine. His hair was flat to his head, shiny with Brylcreme.

He’d put a lot of effort in, he thought, panting for breath, as he leapt down and wheeled his bicycle down the side of the building. Hoped it was jolly well worth it.

The skating was already underway. With the double doors standing open, he could see the grey dust swirling around, caught up by the roller-skates and spinning in the lights. The skaters were all coated in a thin mist that clung to their clothes and faces.

He swept a quick hand over his hair, to make sure it was still well stuck down. His heart was thudding very fast, as if he knew something special was about to happen.

Then, to his relief, the pretty one appeared, sweeping forward out of the dust cloud and smiling shyly.

“So, you came then,” she said.

Bit obvious, he thought.

Perhaps she was nervous, like him.

She had soft, thick curls of brown hair and warm eyes that seemed always to be laughing. He hoped it wasn’t at him. They had a kindly light though when she looked at him. A little curious, perhaps.

Her name, she said softly, was Doreen.


Together they started skating around in circles along with everybody else, their faces soon coated in that same dust. When the chap playing the music grew fed-up and stopped, the sound of their skates churned on, rumbling and growling over the wooden floor.

She told him that she had known his mother, who used to buy magazines at the shop. He nodded, not wanting to talk much about his mother and not really knowing what else to say to this pretty girl with the smile.

They didn’t have a lot to say on that first night, but it didn’t seem to matter. There was a comforting sweetness about her company. Once they got over the first few minutes, it felt natural, right and not at all awkward. When she called him by his name it sounded different to the way other people said it.

As she skated along at his side, shooting him those curious and amused glances, he wondered how she came to be there with him. Why did she like Charlie? He kept looking over his shoulder, wondering if somebody played a practical joke at his expense.

Usually, to get something nice, he had to work hard for it, dig for it, struggle and sweat. To get the bread and jam treat on a Saturdays as a boy, for instance, he had to survive the Syrup of Figs on a Friday. What bad thing had he done to get this good one? Or was the payment yet to come?

He broke his back working for three pounds a week and had nothing to call his own, except for that old pushbike. Other than Tom Rule and the lads at the blacksmith’s workshop, he didn’t even have a family any longer.


And yet, here was a young girl named Doreen, who rolled out of the dust to find him, and suddenly he felt like a rich man with no worries in the world. Well, he could imagine what a rich man must think and feel. Now he could.

He walked her home to her parents’ house on West Avenue and as he watched her stroll down the garden path, her roller-skates swinging from one hand, she turned, the moonlight gently caressing her lovely curls and her round, flushed cheek. She beamed. “See you again.”

See you again.

His heartbeat quickened and he caught his breath. It was almost like standing up on his motorbike seat and speeding along a sunny lane.

See you again.

He looked up at the sky and counted a few stars winking down at him. For once, he didn’t want to be up there. Charlie didn’t want to be anyone else or anywhere else, but here. With her.

* * *

Read on by grabbing your copy of Everything He Never Said here -

Amazon US

Amazon UK

 Amazon France

Amazon Canada

Amazon Australia




Wednesday, September 9, 2020

EVERYTHING HE NEVER SAID

Everything He Never Said. A true tale of tears, laughter and family.




He was a “Fen Tiger”, salt of the earth, fearless and invincible.

Oh, we can hear him chuckling at the first line already. Don’t be daft, he would say, I’m just an ordinary chap. But he was our dad and we beg to differ.

In poverty, hard work, mischief and happiness, Charlie sprouted up from the rural farmland of East Anglia. Give him a horse, he could shoe it; give him a dog, he could train it to hunt rabbits; give him a gun, he could shoot two holes in an apple at fifty yards; give him a little brother, he could teach it to ride a bike with no saddle and no brakes. There was nothing Charlie couldn’t do.

And then he was left a widower with three little girls to raise. When his young wife was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and died five weeks later, how did he keep going?

Perhaps, the secret lies in how he got that far.

*

Our dad was a man of very few words. We knew little about his childhood and the family in which he grew up. And we knew virtually nothing about his struggles. But finally, only six years before he died, he sat down and wrote about his life: all the laughter and all the tears. It was everything he had never been able to say to us, his daughters.
In the end, his memoir was the most we ever heard him talk about himself, in all the years we knew him. Or thought we knew him.

Now, left with the priceless gift of his memories set down on paper, we collaborated on a special project, using his words and our own; something we thought, just maybe, the rest of the world might like to read.

Be warned: this story doesn’t have a lot of remarkable insight into the human condition. It has some farting, some crying and quite a bit of horse manure. Like our dad, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s all true.

This is Charlie’s story. And it’s ours.

Our dad was a man not easily startled, or shocked, and after all that he’d been through, was it any wonder? He often tut-tutted and said that nothing the three of us could do would surprise him. I don’t suppose he meant that in a good way.
But perhaps, here at last, we have.

READ THIS BOOK NOW!

EVERYTHING HE NEVER SAID - US AMAZON

EVERYTHING HE NEVER SAID - UK AMAZON

Saturday, May 2, 2020

SALE - Jayne's Big Booky Baking Bonanza. (Or baking with friends and family 2020)

This year, waiting for spring sun to finally show its face, and while rain rattled at the windows for a week solid, I decided to collect some "foolproof" recipes from family and friends. I thought it might be a good chance to announce a sale and a fitting way to get ready for the third Bespoke novel "A Deadly Shade of Night" coming later this spring (like spring itself).


BESPOKE is now available at a special sale price, so if you have not yet picked up your copy, now is a good time to get started on this Victorian romance/murder/mystery/cake-loving series. YAY!

Now, you will need something to eat while you're reading, so here are some recipes, kindly submitted by my friends and family. As a consequence, some are in English cooking-speak and some in American. Depending on your location, you may need to translate measurements etc. via our dear friend Google! (What did we ever do without it?)

Enjoy!

Great Niece Millie's Magnificent Cookies

Cream together 100g margarine and 100g of sugar. Add 1 egg and half a teaspoon of vanilla. Stir in 225g of plain flour and 2 teaspoons of baking powder. Add nuts, chocolate chips, coconut -- your choice. Roll into balls and place on a baking tray. Press down gently. Bake at 180 degrees c for approx. 14 minutes. This mixture can make 12 normal-sized cookies or 30 bite-sized! Or 1 large me-sized.

Auntie June's Jolly Jammy Scones

Put 225 grams of self-raising flour and 1/4 teasp of salt into a bowl. Add 50 grams of chilled butter, cut into small pieces. Rub in with your fingers to a crumb mix, lifting to aerate the mixture as you go. Stir in 25 g golden caster sugar. Make a well in the centre. Add a few tablespoons of full fat milk to 125 mls of buttermilk and pour some of this into the flour mixture (reserve some of the buttermilk, in case it is not needed). Use a round-bladed knife to combine the flour, fat and buttermilk until it forms a soft dough that is almost sticky. Work in the remaining buttermilk, if needed. Do not overwork. Lift out of bowl to a lightly floured surface and knead only 3-4 times. Pat gently into a thickness of no less than 2 cm and no more than 2.5 cms. Dip a fluted cutter in flour and use to cut out scones. Place on a lightly greased baking tray and bake at 220 degrees c for 10-12 minutes, until risen and golden. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with jam and whipped or clotted cream.

(Point of Interest: If you're in Cornwall, you put the cream first, then the jam. If you're in Devon, it's the other way around! So now you know. Don't say you never learn anything from this blog.)

Cousin Lynda's Bountiful Bouncing Banana Cake

Place 1 egg, 1 ripe banana, 5 oz sugar, 2 oz of soft butter, 1/2 teasp. of vanilla and 1/2 teasp of salt
into a food processor. Blend on maximum to a smooth consistency (about one minute). Sift 5 oz of self-raising flour and 1/4 teasp of bicarbonate of soda into a bowl and mix the wet mixture into the dry just until combined. Bake in a 7 inch, greased tin, at 375 degrees F for 25 minutes. Serve with banana cream: Blend 1 oz of sugar to a powder in the blender and then adding it to a quarter pint of whipped, chilled cream with one smashed, ripe banana and 1/4 teasp of nutmeg. You would be bananas not to try this!

Sister-in-Law Lori's Socially-Distant Poke Cake

Bake a white cake mix (from box -- I like where this one is going) in a spray-greased rectangular tin at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes. Whisk together one can of sweetened condensed milk, 1 cup of brown sugar, a stick of melted butter, a dash of cinnamon, a dash of salt. Make holes in the baked cake and pour the condensed milk mixture over it. Whisk together one block of cream cheese, a dash of vanilla, salt, a stick of butter and 1 cup of powdered sugar. Whisk this mixture into whipped heavy cream and spread over the cake to finish. Eat immediately all to yourself, bearing in mind that it might not be healthy to get close enough to share and we are supposed to be isolating!

Laughing Lynne's Cracking Cannoli Dip

Mix together one cup of ricotta cheese, 8 oz of cream cheese (at room temp.), one cup powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and as many mini choc chips as you like. Stir well and refrigerate. Serve with graham cracker cookies! Or you could just eat out of the bowl.

Marvelous Marta's Tantalizing Tiramisu


Prepare a cup of strong coffee and leave to chill. Whip 500 ml of double cream in a large bowl until thick. Add 500 g of mascarpone and mix until smooth. In another bowl mix 6 egg yolks with ½ cup of sugar until smooth. Combine the mascarpone mix and egg yolk mix. Stir to remove lumps. Dip 2 packs of sponge fingers (lady fingers) in chilled coffee and use to create a base layer in serving dish. Pour creamy mixture over sponge fingers. Repeat. On the last layer, sprinkle with a dusting of cocoa powder (using a sieve/strainer). Oh, and leave in the fridge for a couple of hours. If you can wait that long!

Dastardly Debbie's Voluptuous Victoria Sponge


Beat together 200g caster sugar, 200g softened butter, 4 beaten eggs, 200g self-raising flour, 1 teasp baking powder and 2 tablespoons of milk until smooth. Divide between 2 sandwich tins. Bake for 20 mins at 190 degrees c. Cool on wire rack. For the filling – Beat 100g of butter and 140g of icing sugar together with a drop of vanilla extract. Spread a layer of this buttercream over one layer. Spread strawberry jam over the other layer and sandwich together. Dust with icing sugar. Even Queen Victoria would be amused.

Kooking Kathy's Captivating Coconut Cake

Grease three 8-inch, round cake pans. Line bases with parchment paper. Grease paper and flour. Flour sides too. Preheat over to 350 degrees f. Sift together 2 and 3/4 cups cake flour, 4 teaspoons baking powder and 1 teasp. salt. In another bowl combine 2/3 cup of vegetable oil, 3/4 cup whole milk, 1/2 cup of water and 2 teaspoons of coconut extract. Using hand-held electric mixer, beat the oil and milk mixture into the dry ingredients until it is a very smooth batter. In another bowl, beat 4 large egg whites until frothy (make sure they are room temperature at start). Add 1/4  teasp. cream of tartar and continue beating until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1 and 1/2 cups of granulated sugar, while continuing to beat on high speed until well blended and firm. Using a large spatula, fold this mixture into the cake batter, one third at a time. Pour into the prepared tins and bake 20-25 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Remove the cakes and let cool. Leave oven on. Toast 2 and 2/3 cups of sweetened coconut by spreading in a thin layer on a baking tray and putting in the oven while it is still on and after the cake is out, for about 7-12 minutes. Take out and let cool.

For the frosting/filling: In the top of a double boiler, over simmering water, beat together 1 and 1/2 cups of granulated sugar, 2 egg whites (at room temp.), 1/4 teasp. cream of tartar, 1/3 cup of water and pinch of salt. Beat constantly with hand-held electric mixer until soft peaks form (about 7 minutes). Remove from the simmering water in the boiler. Add 1 teaspoon of coconut extract. Beat until soft enough to spread, but not dry (about 2 mins.) Use as a filing between the cold cakes, and also cover the sides and top. Sprinkle toasted coconut over cake before serving.

All this, by her standards, is easy; by mine...deadly. I'll wait for her to make it for me again one day, but you might be braver.

* * *

My warmest thanks to all who contributed!

We hope these recipes will keep you busy, well fed and somewhat entertained, until the next edition of  Jayne's Big Booky Baking Bonanza™.


Don't forget to grab your special sale copy of BESPOKE now from all good online outlets and enjoy!



Above are photos of two of my own attempts. The top one, as you can see, was a disastrous lemon and orange bundt cake baked with great optimism, and relentlessly high expectations, for my long-suffering husband's birthday. Yes, laugh away! The bottom was a more successful, diabetic-friendly hummingbird cake (which was quite delicious, although I say so myself, and a rarity among my efforts!)

Jayne.


Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Marauding Madwomen, Murder, and the Mysterious, Much-Summoned Eileen


In THE CROLLALANZAS my heroines live in three different time periods and each of them faces different challenges as women of their time. But they all have something in common too, including a song and a dark secret in their past – a secret about which only one of them knows. Until the other two read her diary…



Truzia

Venezia 1603

What dreams may come.


As our mother washed my hair today, she remarked upon how different we, her three daughters, have become. Viola is the quiet, elegant spider, spinning webs of cunning. Francesca is the butterfly, pretty and delicate, flitting about with sunlight on her wings. And I am “a grub, wriggling and blundering awkwardly about, munching on leaves and causing squeals of horror” from anybody who suddenly comes upon my mischief. She assures me that one day I shall be transformed, that I shall not always be this plump, little grub worm. However, I have discovered that grubs turn into beetles, and I am not certain that is better. I should rather be a wasp, and sting people.



Our mother laughs softly and then urges me to shut my eyes as she pours a jug of warm water over my head. But I keep my eyes open and see my shadowy reflection swaying from side to side in the basin of water, distorted and medusa-like.

I ponder this idea of transformation, for I see it all around me, from the clouds that float overhead, to the plants on our balcony and the maggots squirming inside the dead pigeon I found at the foot of Signora Bianchi’s steps. Incidentally, I warned the old crone that this is a bad omen, but she was not grateful for the information and swept me away with her broom as if the dead bird was my fault. In any case, everything in the world is capable of transformation. Even stone and marble, which is made of other matter transformed over time, will crumble and stain, changing its shape in centuries to come.

Nothing is gone forever. It becomes one with the air, the ground or the water and then it is altered again.

My mother hums as she rubs my hair dry. I ask her why she never finishes her tune. And who is Eileen?

She thinks for a moment and then replies that she cannot remember how it ends, or where she heard it, yet it remains lodged there in her mind and has become a part of her.

“Like the little scar on my knee, where I fell when I was four,” she says. She barely knows it is there anymore; she cannot feel it and she might, one day, forget how she came by it. The mind is a peculiar vessel, which picks and chooses what it keeps and what it spills. “My mother thought I was dead,” she says cheerfully. “But I returned to her and opened my eyes. All I have now is that scar.”

The scar and the song are just two of the many things, she says, that have shaped her into the woman she is now— the scar marking her body, the song her soul…

* * *



The day after their mother’s funeral, Truzia waited until both her sisters had gone out on errands and then she donned her cloak, put on her most determined expression, and traveled across the city to the palazzo of Don Venturi. She had no earthly idea what would happen if she was granted an audience with the old man, but this impulsiveness was common for her. She had not yet out-grown that tendency to act first and think later.

All she knew with any certainty, as she arrived at the entrance of his grand house, was that this man must be convinced to let them stay where they had lived all their lives. Once, apparently, he had loved their mother, so he must be a man of some compassion, surely. If he knew that her daughters had nowhere else to go, he would not take their home away and cast them out, would he? Don Venturi had many houses. What did he need with this one? Perhaps his son made this decision without the old man’s knowledge.

The family Venturi were well known in Venice, for they had wealth, connections and consequence. Few folk crossed swords with them, but the son was known to be wilder— ambitious, as the consigliere had described him— a creature of the modern world, who paid little respect to the traditions of old. He picked fights at will, casting aside his father’s good reputation with as little care as he would toss a bone from his plate.

When Truzia had suggested to her sisters that they might, somehow, appeal to the patriarch of the family, Viola had rolled her eyes wearily.

“You and your flare for drama. This is not one of your overwrought tales of blood and vengeance, girl.”

But Truzia could not stand by and do nothing. Anger and injustice made her blood spit and sizzle. Humility did not come naturally to her, but on this day she would make an effort to beg, if need be.

Arriving at the door of the palazzo, she found the place eerily silent; the calm, as they say, before the storm. The entrance was left untended, the door ajar, no guards in her way, no servants to restrict her passage.

This should have warned her that all was not well, but Truzia, on a mission, was not about to be stopped, no matter how sizeable the omen.

She had not gone more than six steps inside the building, when she heard a crash followed by a torrent of screams. Panic rattled along the corridors and through the loggia, echoing under the arches. After a stunned moment of uncertainty, Truzia looked down at her feet and imagined a trickle of scarlet weeping between the mosaic tiles, creeping toward her like a malevolent worm. She fled.

On her way back down the steps, the breath skipping up her throat with every jolting foot-fall, Truzia encountered another shock. First one sister and then the other, appeared in her view. Both wore their black, hooded cloaks; both looked equally startled to see her there too. Stumbling to a halt the three girls stared, pale and mute. For that moment, they were frozen in time.

A summer rain had begun to fall, slowly at first, nothing more than warm spittle. But suddenly the heavens opened and they were caught in a downpour.

Truzia turned her face up to it and felt the cooling rain on her eyelids.

Here comes the rain again, their mother had said just before she took her last breath, and in that moment Truzia remembered it— the distant smile, the look of surprise and then the stillness. Where had their darling mother gone? Was she happy now? Could she see her daughters? Had she ever remembered the last notes of that tune she used to hum?

Now they were here without her, standing in the rain-washed via from which everybody else had run for shelter. Their safe childhood was over.

The clattering flood upon the stone woke Truzia from this strange daze. She opened her eyes, pulled up her hood and ran after her sisters, the three soon moving as one, merging with the shadows of summer evenfall and becoming just another shifting, undefined layer within the greys and mauves of that spectral realm.

The sisters never asked each other what they had been doing there in the Palazzo Venturi. They set their cloaks and wet stockings to dry before the fire, and then ate their supper with very little conversation, not even lighting a lantern, despite the early darkness that had descended over the rooftops and bell-towers like a deep bruise. After supper they bathed in the old tub before the glow of the fire, taking turns in the water before it got cold. Then, since it was still raining hard, Viola suggested they conserve candles and go to bed. It had been an exhausting few days, she said, and they all needed their rest. For once, Truzia did not argue about having no chance to write down her daily thoughts. In the sinister shadows, with rain blowing against the shutters, the three sisters climbed into bed, pulled up the counterpane and pretended to sleep.

“It could be the work of an aggrieved servant, or some other enemy out for vengeance,” Viola remarked the next morning, by which time the skies had cleared again, the sun was out, and news of Girolamo Venturi’s murder was all over the district. It could not be avoided when they strolled around the market, so she was forced to make comment. It would, of course, have been odd if she said nothing. “Rich men and their sons always have plenty of ill-wishers, who easily become ill-doers.” 

“It is shocking and such a pity for a young man of promise, with so much in his favor, to have his life cut short,” said Cesca, shaking her head. “All that potential unfulfilled.”

“They say the lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform,” said Truzia, who could not pretend to be sorry, even if she tried.

They never spoke to anybody of having been there on that day or what they might have witnessed.

It was not many days, however, before the tide of suspicion turned in their direction.

The consigliere of Don Venturi was the first to point a finger at the sisters Crollalanza, although he could only do so through his privy door, bellowing and groaning between the sound of hefty explosions. “They fed me tainted wine and looked to poison me. I would not put anything beyond those wretched creatures. All three of them witches!”

Other voices were soon raised to join his. Several folk had seen three figures, in mourning black, fleeing Don Venturi’s palazzo on the day of the murder. From Lorenzo Geppi came tales of the younger sister’s foul and violent temper. The eager neighborhood gossip, Signora Bianchi— no doubt paid in good coin for her story— told of having witnessed one of the sisters falling into a strange fit, needing the younger girl to hold her down. Did they, like their mother, dabble in witchcraft?

“I do not like to say so,” she murmured, with her eyes bulging and sweaty hands clasped under her bosom, “but they are odd girls. There is nothing normal about the way they live, or the way they have been raised. The things I’ve heard through that wall—”

As the local physician pointed out, their mother had never abided by rules and laws. Indeed, she blatantly mocked them at every opportunity, just as she had mocked him and his “scientific” knowledge. This brazen confidence she passed on to her daughters, who thought themselves too good for the company of honest boys. And what did anybody know of them truly? Who was their father? How had their harlot mother come by her proud manners, not to mention the books with which she unwisely let her daughters educate themselves, and the ostentatious silks and brocades they wore to parade about on market day? Further, Jacobella Jilani had been a shameless wanton and a shrew, according to the parish priest, with whom she had constantly clashed horns and offended, apparently, even in death.

Those three opinionated sisters, already known to be eccentric and secretive, with no man to keep them in order, could well be suspected of evil deeds. All the good their mother had ever done in that community was now forgotten, or else the women she had helped were too afraid to speak up on her daughters’ behalf. Many would not care to admit they had ever needed or used her secretive services, of course.

But if any of the sisters Crollalanza knew what had happened to Girolamo Venturi on that day of blood and rain, they shared their knowledge with nobody— not even each other. They kept their secret, forming an impenetrable wall of silence.

For all their differences and squabbles, the sisters were now united against the world. If one should be accused, then all three would stand together. It did not need to be said. It was known.


Briar

Oxfordshire, England 1882

Doubt that the sun doth move.

            “Your lady wife will be admitted as a private patient, of course, Sir Milton. She will be well taken care of, with the utmost confidentiality. I can arrange the necessary medical certificates, leave it all to me. Put your mind at ease in the matter.”

            “I trust you implicitly, Wilson, of course. It is a weight off my mind. But I daresay, she will not be grateful. Even after all this upset she has caused us. She will never go quietly or see that all this is for her own good.”

            “The female mind is a strange animal at the best of times, sir. You must remember that she cannot help herself; she cannot be held responsible for her actions. Women, you know, like little children, cannot control their urges. They require the strictest boundaries and routines. That is why we are here, to fix what is broken, to keep them upright and sensible. She may not see that now, but she will come to understand eventually.”

“I hope so, Wilson. Her ladyship can be very stubborn, very difficult.”

            “Oh, the staff at Belle Vista Hospital are quite accustomed to handling troublesome patients. They have the experience, knowledge and equipment to manage all manner of illnesses and temperaments. I can assure you, there is nothing they have not already seen; nothing beyond the realm of their experience.”

For some minutes the two male voices, stroking, flattering and reassuring each other of their superiority, dominated the conversation. It was not until Briar heard her aunt meekly venture, “But how can this malady— this Female Trouble— be treated? Will my niece ever be cured?” that she realized her husband and the doctor were not alone in the drawing room, conspiring in secret. Not that her aunt would be of much assistance in preventing their plans. Elsa Beauchamp had always taken comfort in her quiet, still place, seated behind whichever man she imagined to be in charge of her at the time, never wanting to make her own decisions or upset the calm waters. Which led to her being very disappointed that her niece, orphaned and brought to live with her in adolescence, had not acquired the same habits.

“The staff at Belle Vista use all the most modern methods, madam,” Doctor Wilson gently assured her aunt. “I suppose she will be restrained, sedated with paraldehyde in the beginning. Cold water baths and the like will follow, and be of great help in the management of her distemper. As for a cure…well, who can say? These things often take years to be resolved satisfactorily.”

“Sometimes they never are,” Briar’s husband added hastily. “We must face the possibility of leaving her there indefinitely. I am sorry for it, but there you are, Elsa. These tragedies happen, and life must go on. We will visit, of course. When time allows. Although, I daresay, our presence might only set her progress back.”

“She will be committed into the care of the strongest, most capable hands at Belle Vista, Mrs. Beauchamp.”

“Well…I suppose you know what is right for her, gentlemen. Certainly, I tried everything to correct her when she lived in my house, but she wore me— a poor, tired widow with the most wretched nerves— quite to shreds. I promised my dear brother, on his deathbed, that I would take his only child under my roof and raise her to be a proper lady. But I had no idea then of the challenges I would face. Oh, that artistic temperament she got from her mother’s side of the family! I thought that being married would calm her down, give her something with which to occupy her mind.”

Oh, it had, Briar mused as she silently slipped into her coat. Married life had caused her to imagine all sorts of new uses for fire irons and a coal scuttle. Mostly involving the back of her husband’s head and the cleft between his buttocks.

Interesting though that they thought her mad. No doubt many folk had been labelled thus in times gone by, simply because they held a differing opinion to that of somebody influential. The Greek astrologer, Aristarchus, who first dared suggest the earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa, must have been widely ridiculed by his neighbors and was probably not invited to many parties.

“I cannot help but think I should have done more for my niece. That I am, somehow, to blame for how she has turned out.”

“You will never hear a word of reproach from me, madam, despite the fact that I was misled before the marriage. I see you must have been desperate and perhaps it was not intentional, so, as a Christian gentleman I forgive you for pushing her into my hands. Now, as Doctor Wilson says, these things are always best managed swiftly and discretely. The sooner we have her removed from the house, the sooner she can begin her recovery.”

“Indeed. The patient can be taken directly via carriage. I will escort her later today myself, Mrs. Beauchamp.”

They did all but chink glasses in celebration of this scheme to be rid of her.

Standing behind the drawing room door, listening through it, Briar felt no surprise, only anger. Even that was mild, distant. Her fires had burned themselves out it seemed and now merely smoldered.

“You mentioned to me, Mrs. Beauchamp, the matter of foreign blood, on her maternal grandmother’s side.”

“Nothing of any record, you understand, merely an old rumor within the family, Doctor.” Her aunt stammered over this half-confession. She was very probably clutching at the pearls around her slender throat. “Not the sort of thing one talks about in polite society.”

“Italian, so I understand, on her mother’s side,” Milton grumbled. “And who knows what else?”

“Ah. That would explain much,” the doctor replied gravely.

With brisk, surprisingly steady and capable fingers, the madwoman of their discussion, standing in the hall and unobserved by them, finished buttoning her coat.

“Where is the patient now?”

“I thought it best to let her rest, Wilson. I slipped some laudanum into her cocoa.”

A sleeping draft that now dried in the soil of a drooping aspidistra on the landing. If she could take that poor plant with her, she would.

“My poor niece.” Her aunt sniveled wetly, probably into a tiny, crumpled lace handkerchief dotted with Attar of Roses. “She’s always been…rather difficult. But this latest troubling, shameful incident—”

“Ah, yes. The Countess of Levesey’s portrait. I hear several ladies fainted in shock at the unveiling and had to be revived with smelling salts.”

“The Countess took to her bed and cancelled all her social events for at least a month.”

“As you can appreciate, doctor, we really cannot ignore my wife’s mental infirmity any longer,” said Milton. “For the good of all, she must be put away. It was good of you to come so quickly.”

Briar pulled on her gloves.

“And you say that she had no explanation for the portrait?”

“None that any sane person would offer.”

“My niece would only say that her art shows truth, Doctor Wilson; that she does not believe in deception.”

“Extraordinary.”

“My wife likes to cause a stir, doctor. There was absolutely no reason for her to paint the countess with two heads and not a stitch of respectable clothing. She knew how it would be received.”

“But if she did it deliberately,” said her aunt, “is it truly lunacy?”

“Elsa, your niece is insane and a danger to herself. The doctor has examined her and confirmed it. There is nothing more that we can do for her. This behavior has been tolerated long enough— we have all been patient, more than generous— and when you gave her over to me, she became my responsibility, my burden, my property.”

“Of…of course.”

“I mean to say, there is a dashed limit to what a man must put up with from his wife.” He cleared his throat. “I have my re-election to consider, and there have been rumblings within the Party.”

“Naturally. I did not mean to question your wisdom. I am quite sure you have my niece’s well-being at heart, Sir Milton.”

“She has embarrassed me— us— for the last time.”

Briar checked her appearance in the hall mirror above the little console table. For a mad woman she looked well, she mused. Color in her cheeks, bright and focused eyes, steady lips and a proudly held chin. She would not look that way for long, once the good staff of Belle Vista “Hospital” got their hands on her.

“Another glass of sherry, doctor?”

“Ah, well…don’t mind if I do. Since the patient still sleeps.”

The “patient” picked up the hatbox in which she had packed her essentials.

“Tell me,” she heard the doctor ask cautiously, “one does not like to pry, or repeat prurient speculation…but, is it true, that there might have been a murderess in the family?”

She walked swiftly and silently to the door. There, she paused a moment, looking back and glancing up the stairs. The sullen housemaid— hired by Milton soon after their wedding just to spy on her— was still thumping about in the attic, searching for a travelling trunk in which to pack Briar’s belongings for her trip to the asylum. There was nobody, therefore, to apprehend her. Quickly she set down her hatbox and returned up the stairs, carefully avoiding the steps that creaked, to retrieve the sadly drooping potted plant. She would not leave it behind to be thrown out. This plant had been one of her few allies in married life, a confidant that kept her darkest secrets within its leaves. No wonder they shriveled and curled downward, taking on the weight of her sorrows.



Having made this rescue, tucking the plant under one arm, she hurried back down the stairs, again on tip toe. She picked up the hatbox, opened the front door and left her old life behind forever.

Escape was that easy in the end.

The garden gate squeaked, as she knew it would, and the people inside might hear it, but they would not equate the sound with Briar leaving the house. They thought her well out of it, unconscious in her bed upstairs, and they were too busy celebrating their own cleverness.

Several thousand times, during the course of her marriage, she had heard that squeak as Milton came and went on his very carefully regulated routine. And every time she heard it, her tooth ached. Eventually, she had realized the pain was caused by grinding her teeth, because she had known when to expect the sound of the gate opening and her body tensed accordingly in readiness. All of her parts tightened with frustration: her jaw, her brow, her stomach, her fists.

Well, no more.

This was the last time she would hear that dreadful squeak.

She let the gate clang shut behind her— something she knew Milton hated.

It began to rain, and she had no umbrella. No room to carry one. But she walked on with a quick and resolute step, for the rain had never bothered her. Most of the time she was too hot in any case, her insides a seething cauldron of stifled fury, and the rain— god bless it— cooled her down.

She had reached the end of the road and crossed toward the coaching inn on the corner when she suddenly heard music playing and a voice singing. For a moment she paused, wondering where it came from. She’d never before heard the like of it.

Who was Eileen? Well, she had the good sense not to come when she was summoned so rudely.

Briar walked on.


Julie

Present Day

For those who love, time is eternal.

I woke to the sound of Truzia banging on the pipes again.

She finds the bathroom plumbing more fascinating than anything else about my life, it seems. In her time, hot and cold running water inside a building happened only by act of god or deliberate menace, and there was no such thing as a flushing toilet. There were no alarm clocks either, only cockerels, who crowed with renewed astonishment every morning, as soon as they glimpsed the yolk of sunrise spilled through a crack over the horizon. No sound louder than thunder came from the skies above; no manmade machine soiled the quality of this air we need to breathe; no news could travel faster than a horse. Days passed without a “weekend” in which to “lie-in”; no electric light filled rooms to forcibly extend working hours within them. There was only the meagre glow of candles, which, unless one was rich, must be conserved, not squandered.

People, she reminds me, were in better touch with nature and its rhythms. There was no putting-off, lazing about and promising to do tomorrow, or in three days, what could be done efficiently today, while the sun shone. Folk made the most of their waking hours, for they did not expect to live eighty years, or even forty. Life had its proper pace, she boasts.

“Ah,” say I, “it just didn’t have clean drinking water and an efficient, sanitary sewage removal system. Otherwise, apart from poor hygiene, cruelty for entertainment, and the inequality of human and civil rights, I’m sure it must have been perfect.”

Truzia, like the plumbing she loves to play upon, runs up and down the walls of this house. On sunny days I hear her laughter in the birdsong at my bedroom window. On rainy mornings I hear her whisper in the soft pizzle of drips that fall between the cross-beams of the pergola, to pool upon the shadowy, uneven flagstone path below. Sometimes her fingertip leaves a swirl in the crema of my coffee, or, from another room, I am distracted by the gentle ‘tink’ of thorny stems moving about in a vase, as she rearranges the bouquet to her exacting standards. Once, for just a flickering moment, I saw wet footprints on the tiled floor in the passage that was once a butler’s pantry— those of a woman and her pet pig. Yes, her pig. It is the least questionable thing in all this; the least improbable.

People would say it’s all in my head.

An explanation more comforting. For them, anyway. Because it’s not their head.

In the shadows of the garden wall Truzia shares with me her “Thought for the Day”— her “Pensiero del Giorno”. Now they have become my ponderings too.

For example: we never know how much time our flame has left to burn. It could be years, months, weeks. Hours. It could be less than a handful of minutes. Yet we seldom put our time to good use. We rarely appreciate the true worth in our being. Instead we save our love, our forgiveness, our best, for another day that may never come.

As she lectures me, I groan and curl up tighter. Of course, it’s just my luck that the ghost haunting me can’t just go “boo”, throw a few things around, possess an ugly plastic doll and be done with it. All I want is a comfortable, quiet place to be alone. My pleasures in life are a warm cardy, a cappuccino, a chocolate hob-nob and a good book. I am neither complicated nor particularly courageous, unless I am forced to be— and then you can be sure I’ll complain about it.

Can she not find a better, more bold, outraged and rebellious ear to stir with these contemplations?

But no, she chooses me. She runs through the maze of my mind during the twilight, when my senses should be resting and the volume of the world around me turned down low. There is no button, no remote to control my ghost.

Come play with me, she whispers.

She haunts me with her favorite tune, “Come on Eileen.”

In Truzia’s time the idea of music traveling over invisible airwaves would have been considered witchcraft. Now, of course, we know differently. We have harnessed a power that they did not know existed. What else have we yet to learn about?

Could it be that she travelled over the airwaves too? And that song travelled back and forth with her?

Maybe I’m just a bit crazy.      
   

There are things she seems to know about me already. Is she, somehow, connected to me? I am not aware of any Italians in the family. Although I am inordinately fond of tiramisu and a good antipasto.

Or would she haunt anybody who came here?

I am, after all, only a holiday guest on this lovely, peaceful, willow-flanked island off the Surrey bank of the river Thames. There are no other homes here, and no other people, just an abandoned watermill, a boathouse and a jetty.

The thing is, when I first knew I’d won the prize of this holiday at Threavewode House, I had an idea that I would learn about somebody else entirely: Briar Lockwood, the nineteenth century artist who, so it is claimed, spent time here once, hiding from relatives who wanted to shut her away in a lunatic asylum. For years I’ve been fascinated by her work and her mysterious, somewhat scandalous life.

But now that I’m here, it is Truzia who steals my attention. I wonder if she ever haunted Briar too. Does she know what happened to the reclusive, elusive Miss Lockwood—buried, according to her gravestone, in 1940, and yet last seen, by me, striding through a pub beer-garden, while “Come on Eileen” bounced out of the juke box and through an open door in the summer of 1982?

Oh, yes, I can describe the dead woman clearly. She wore a long, burgundy coat with a black lambswool collar, and an ebony straw bonnet with a small veil. In one hand she carried a hatbox, while within the crook of her other arm she cradled a potted aspidistra with mournfully drooping leaves. At first, I assumed she must have wandered away from a theatre rehearsal— there were always plenty of performing arts going on in the city center in summer. But she paused and looked directly at me for a moment, her eyes narrowed against the sunlight, and I saw that, although there was a warm breeze on that day, her skirt and the few loose waves of hair falling against her coat collar were still, and damp with rain. She tilted her head, as if in uncertain acknowledgement, and then, in a rather disappointingly-classic ghost move, she disappeared through a wisteria-clad stone wall, on the other side of which was a grassy slope and, some way below that, a disused railway line.

Since nobody else had seen the woman and I, at the time, did not believe in the supernatural, I concluded the cider was stronger than I expected.

Later, I came to think that the woman with hatbox and the aspidistra was a trick of the sunlight, her shape made visible by chance in that moment— like a cobweb that is completely invisible to the eye, until the sun catches its threads at a certain angle, or else a cold, foggy morning reveals the slumbering trap in all its silver, filigree glory.

She looked a little bit like me. Something about the eyes, perhaps.  Could that be the reason why she had seemed to recognize me too for that brief moment of illumination, when her image of gossamer strands was caught, web-like, between the branches of time?

The old swing in the garden lets out a low whine, and the window drifts open a further inch, welcoming the chalky fragrance of lavender and, with a flutter of sun-basted, clotted-cream wings, a late season butterfly. I like to sit here at this window and daydream, but on this sweet, mellow day at summer’s end, I sense her anxiety and impatience. I understand it, for I’ve always felt peculiar tentacles of foreboding lurking in wait behind a bright, blue-sky afternoon. I prefer rain. Light, soft rain, though— not ferocious, stormy gales of it.

Truzia would chuckle at that too, for she is a tempest, much stronger and far more daring than me. I’m a mere drizzle by comparison.

That is what comes of living a soft, pampered life in this easy, wasteful century, with all at your fingertips, she tells me. You have a button to press for anything and everything and nothing. Your parts grow rusty from lack of use.

“Rude,” I say.

Down— or rather, up— through that invisible funnel, comes her disjointed laughter, the soundwaves oscillating wildly. You know nothing of living. Of what is important. You forgot how to breathe. You fear everything.

Today we live our life via machines, according to Truzia. We do not experience the world for ourselves. We are brave only when hidden behind our screens and we can make no decision without the words appearing on them to lead us. Microchips— the faceless advertisers, megalomaniacs, and multi-billion-dollar corporations talking through them, secreted behind them— tell us what to eat and when; they tell us what to wear and buy, what to watch, what to hear, what to believe. They tell us what we should feel, manipulating our every waking moment, and yet we never know who ‘they’ truly are. If we met them in real life, face to face, would we like them?

Would we invite them into our homes? Entrust them with our secrets? We do all that with the touch of a finger.

Most dangerous of all, we let them tell us what to fear, just to save us the trouble of raising our eyes from the screen, to stop us from seeing and doing and thinking for ourselves. We are sloths, moving about with our heads permanently bowed, our spines curved. Like carcasses swinging from butchers’ hooks. Flesh coats, empty of breath and spirit already.

“Well, aren’t you cheerful,” I say. And then I remind her that we have indoor plumbing, tampons and penicillin. Good grief, that must count for something.

But Truzia is saddened and frustrated by what she sees, because we take for granted the opportunities and advantages she could only dream about, and we squander them. Through laziness and the distraction of mundane habits, we have set ourselves back. We waste hours watching gossiping, shrieking “harridans”— as she calls them— who travel in groups across our tv screens, cavorting drunkenly in tight dresses and public places, doing nothing that comes to any good, worth or even point. We listen as the loud, rich and narcissistic debate among themselves on how to spend our hard-earned coin and what to do with our bodies, while the world crumbles into ruin and extinction around us. We celebrate the pitifully undone, the riotously inept, the vacantly pretty and the barely sentient, who achieve notice, not by saving life, caring for those in need, or overcoming great adversity, but by exhibiting their privy parts.

My ghost does not hold back on her opinions.

Come play with me, her voice throbs with urgency. I will show you how to live. How to breathe.

“But look,” I say, “sunlight shows up all the smudges on these windows— fingertip smears and little clouds left by the exhale of carbon dioxide. See, I know how to breathe, so there! Proof!”

Call that a breath? It’s a little puff of nothing and gone already. Come play with me.

“Come where? If you are in my head, it might not be wise to follow you there.” I know the state of my own mind; there are cones, police tape and potholes all over the place.

But she persists, like a fly by my ear. What do you have to fear?

I huddle inside my cardigan, arms folded. I fear the great unknown that lies ahead.

You did not know what waited ahead of you when you were born; when you took your first breath outside the womb.

Consequently, as would any baby with good sense, I screamed my head off. Besides, that was different. “I had no choice then,” I whisper.

How do you know what you had then? Do you remember anything that came before?

“Well, no, of course not. There was nothing, was there?”

She is uncharacteristically silent for a moment. I sense she’s disappointed.

Finally, she says, Then what do you have to fear?

 “Fine. I’ll play your game, if it will keep you quiet a while. I’ll close my eyes and count to a hundred. Ready or not, here I come.”

A dark-haired girl already runs ahead of me, through the narrow avenues of a boxwood hedge maze, her laughter soft and husky. Now, recruited as her play mate, an ally in this mischief, I give chase around the corners. Puffs of excited breath cloud the air before me, for it is no longer summer, but a frosty day, crisp and shimmering with silver. A cold blade of winter cleaves the skin from my face. I feel dense, evergreen foliage ruffling against my fingertips. My heart bumps along like a big drum, broken free from its straps to roll away, over the edge of a rocky promontory, spinning in uncontrolled speed to both its doom and its freedom.

The maze walls are high and thick, but I see a dash of oxblood red as the cheeky tongue of her skirt disappears around another corner, licking frost from the tight branches and leaving them in a quiver. Here there are lacy cobwebs cast among the leaves, some like tiny sailor’s hammocks, and others spun wider, showy as peacock’s tails in this wintry landscape. I smell bonfire and the river and damp woodchips. I have no idea where I’m going, but that is part of the thrill and I do not look back.

Like her, I am young again, and adventure lies ahead of us, our story yet to be written on the next clear page.
And I know now that nothing is gone forever. 


* * *



Read more about the heroines of The House of Crollalanza HERE NOW!





 (Images used here: Book cover, courtesy of Twisted E-Publishing; Jeune Fille au Livre, by Pietro Rotari 1750-1762; Portrait of Miss Lloyd by James Tissot 1876; and two photos of my mother, Doreen, as a girl c. 1940.)