Archive | July 2012

50 Shades of Trepidation

The phenomenal success of 50 Shades of Grey is making me very nervous about publication of The White Cuckoo.  If it is possible for a book to be the complete opposite of another book, you will find no better comparison. (By the way, I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey yet).

In the early 1980s, Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla, who eventually became John Paul II, was published in English   I am not a Roman Catholic, but I have recently ploughed my way through the first couple of chapters of this book as research for a short story I am planning to write and it has, I suppose, made me realise that it is a manual for the way love between a man and a woman should develop over time. It explains why sex is a wonderful gift that should be shared with someone you love as a person, and who loves you as a person in return. It explores the ways relationships can develop, and for all the reasons they develop, as well as explaining why things go wrong and relationships fail. It also covers friendship, maternal and paternal love, attraction – everything. In a nutshell, it makes you realise why so many marriages nowadays fail.

I have read the reviews of 50 Shades of Grey, and a basic synopsis of the story. I know what it is and what messages it purports to convey to its reader. I know my own  novel, The White Cuckoo, inside out and what it is and what messages I want to give to my reader. The White Cuckoo is not a slushy romance, but it is about ‘Love’. Within its pages, the various relationships between the characters describe just about every type of love possible. There is no bad language, no rough sex, bondage or other stuff that people are going crazy about right now.

The White Cuckoo is clean, pure and virginal – and that is why I have 50 shades of trepidation about its eventual success. I just hope people are not going to laugh at me and think I am some sort of Mary Whitehouse of novel-writing (which I am not, and I am sure any of my friends and family who have read ‘Sunlight on Broken Glass’ will testify to that.) I want my children and grandchildren to be proud of me and what I am trying to say.

The White Cuckoo  is very special to me – even more special than my trilogy. At this moment I have so many conflicting emotions about its publication. I want the best possible future for it – the way a mother wants the best for her child. I am not sure I am doing the right thing at all, but I suppose the next eighteen months will give me the answer to the many questions I have buzzing around in my head at the moment.



Chapter 7: Serendipity

I love the word ‘serendipity’. It is a much better word than destiny or coincidence to describe the few weeks between mid-March and the beginning of May 2009 when the Writers’ Block monster was beaten back until it resembled a simpering, wizened old man in the corner who didn’t even have the strength to lift his head. There were so many arcane moments during that time, it seemed as if Fate was handing me the story on a platter full of ideas.

My best writing time is early in the morning.  I love getting up at around 4.00 am and sitting in the lounge, with my laptop on my knees. Usually one or two of our dogs will join me for company, raising their heads periodically when I whisper and mutter to myself as I type. I needed a prompt for inspiration to begin writing and so I browsed through my computer files. Coincidentally, one of my writing friends in the Wannabe group, Kevin Machin (alias Captain Black) had recently urged us all to back-up our work, so I decided kill two of the proverbial birds at once and have a bit of a clear-out in my writing folders before downloading the remaining stuff to a memory stick.

Quite by chance, I discovered a very short piece of writing I had started entitled Doubled Lives. At the time I had half-heartedly thought it might be the beginning of a short story or even a novel. I opened up the document and read through it before deciding whether to keep it or not. It was whimsical and (to me) deliciously indulgent, and I felt a tingle of excitement that I had actually written such an evocative piece of writing. If I could do it once, I could do it again.

It was as if Fate had set in motion a huge wheel of fortune on the day I stood in the restaurant queue in the Natural History Museum, stopping periodically to guide me through the assault course of writers’ block to various ideas for the novel. It had stopped again at this piece of writing, consigned to the file on my computer entitled ‘Odds’.

This is an extract (it doesn’t appear in the book) but it gave me the idea for introducing a subtle paranormal element to The White Cuckoo.

“Come the summer months, the sepia photograph of Adeline’s memories metamorphosised into a different beast.  In a glorious blaze of green and gold under a deep blue sky, dark, predatory tigers’ eyes lurked behind gnarled trunks of trees, ready to leap out and snatch the wallets of anyone too slow to jump out of the way of their outstretched claws.

Rows of people carriers and 4 x 4s belched their contamination into the serenity of Adeline’s existence, spewing out squealing children to invade the quiet, peaceful meadows of her past.

Each summer for almost a hundred years Adeline had searched for herself, drifting through an undulating sea of faces looking for the woman who destiny had told her would, one day, come to release her. Year after year she watched generations of geese, ducks and swans as they scuttled into the sanctuary of an island in the middle of the lake, where, squawking and squabbling they would venture out periodically to seek out the offerings of tiny fingers clutching plastic bags.

During the summer, Adeline would grimace at the smell of chips and fried onions, which each day overwhelmed the delicate aroma of soft earth, dewy grass and the freshness of the mist that rose from the lake at dawn. When dusk fell, she would wander amongst discarded polystyrene containers and plastic cups as they rolled around in the breeze like tumbleweed over the deserted car park.”

This is, of course, a description of Wicksteed Park on a busy day. On reading this excerpt, I remembered I had originally written it in the park one hot bank holiday Monday in May in 1999 or 2000.  I can recall watching my 17 or 18 year old eldest son as he worked on the go-karts while my youngest son and his friend amused themselves and spent lots of my hard-earned money on tickets for the attractions. Despite having painful, sunburned shoulders, I had obviously typed it up when I got home. If you want to see how this piece of writing gave me an idea for The White Cuckoo, you can work it out for yourself when you read the novel.

I printed off the document and slotted it into the pocket of my blue Pukka Pad. I knew it was now time to crack my knuckles, flex my fingers and start writing the novel  Armed with my notes, my mind map, decision trees and character profiles, I began to type.

That morning, before I went to work, I finally banished the Writers’ Block monster for good and managed to type almost three thousand words.  I didn’t want to stop. It almost seemed as if the novel was writing itself. I thought about ringing into the office and booking a day’s annual leave, so ecstatic was I that I could finally write again. With much reluctance, I stopped typing, packed away my laptop and got ready for work.

Later, as I drove to work, I glanced in my rear view mirror which had somehow gone wonky. Expecting to see the road behind me, instead, I saw a pair of brown eyes. I was startled beyond belief because the eyes reflected in the mirror were unmistakeably my dad’s eyes and he had been dead for six years. Of course, they weren’t really my dad’s eyes, they were mine, but I hadn’t realised our eyes were identical. All day at work, I couldn’t stop thinking about my dad, who had died in 2001.

The next morning, during my writing session, I re-read my previous day’s work and added these words, as the opening to the novel:-

In the rear view mirror, I glance at my mother’s eyes. They are staring straight into mine, boring deep into my soul. I ease my right foot off the accelerator. The eerie moment has unnerved me.

It’s been almost two, long years since I gazed into my mother’s forthright brown eyes, and yet it seems like it was only yesterday. When she was alive, she outwardly hid nothing from me, yet behind the chestnut warmth prowled a dark reticence that kept its secrets well-guarded and veiled in mystery.

My father’s mouth smiles at me. Simultaneously, I smile back. The moment passes with the spine-tingling realisation that I have inherited my mother’s eyes and my father’s smile.

For two years I’ve suffered a persistent obsession to come back to Lyverton and as I approach the village it unnerves me to see my own reflection in my rear view mirror. It’s as if I am two people – the living, breathing woman in the car and the ghost of myself in the mirror. I say ‘come back’ to Lyverton, but that’s not strictly true, for to return means you must have been somewhere before. I have never travelled along this road to Lyverton, and if I’m truthful I have always been a little frightened of what I might find here.

Until now.

(Extract from the first draft of the White Cuckoo – April 2009)

The above excerpt didn’t end up being the start of the novel. I eventually added another chapter before this piece appears in the book and changed the whole book from the first-person to the third-person, but it illustrates how, as a writer, every moment of every day can turn into an idea.

It was most definitely ‘serendipity’, and as you will see in the coming weeks, it kept happening again and again.

(The next chapter will be published on 13th July because I won’t have internet access while I am on holiday)


Chapter 6: A Life Unlived

The next chapter in the story of the writing of The White Cuckoo  travels back in time to May 1981.

I was 25 years old and pregnant with my second baby. I had spent an enjoyable afternoon at Wicksteed Park with my mum and 10-month old Emily, which was something we did every Monday. I don’t know why I can remember the walk back from the park on this particular day, because it must have been unremarkable and like so many others, but I can clearly recall the pungent smell of hawthorn and buzzing of insects as we strolled along the public footpath that runs alongside Barton Hall. The sun was shining through a lush green canopy of leaves swishing in the gentle breeze above our heads and Emily had fallen asleep in her pushchair. I can remember feeling very happy.

Twenty minutes later I unlocked my front door.  On the hall carpet lay a folded sheet of paper that had been pushed through the letterbox. It contained a barely legible scribbled note from my doctor, asking me to telephone the surgery urgently.

I shakily dialled the number given on the note and was put straight through to my doctor. It was probably nothing to worry about, he said, but the AFP (alpha-fetoprotein) levels on a routine blood test had come back unusually high for my stage of pregnancy. He had booked me in for a scan the following week and also referred me to a consultant.  “What could be the reason?” I asked. “Twins,” he said. “I think you are probably having twins.”

I was so excited I could hardly relay the news to Mum, who stood next to me by the phone. I had always wanted to have twins and now it looked like my dream might be coming true.  Mum didn’t share my excitement, though.  She sank down into an armchair, clutching her head in disbelief. “How on earth are are you going to cope?” she said.

I won’t go into the details of the week that followed because it is too painful to write about, even now, all these years later.  In those days, scans weren’t performed routinely. My scan the next week revealed that I wasn’t having twins. My baby was suffering from anencephaly. I was the first mother-to-be in the country to have this rare neural tube defect detected by the new AFP test, which had been introduced only weeks earlier.

On Friday, 29th May 1981, the birth was induced. Of course, we did have a choice. We could have continued with the pregnancy to full term. Our little boy might have lived for a few hours or days with this terrible condition, which is incompatible with life. Once the doctor confirmed that the baby would be gently put to sleep in my womb and wouldn’t suffer through the induction, our minds were made up. We couldn’t let our precious baby suffer, and by continuing the pregnancy to full term, he might have suffered terribly during his short life. We named him Michael.

I was quite poorly afterwards, and had to stay in hospital for a while. It was during my time in hospital that I came to appreciate the strength that comes to all women with motherhood. So many women – nurses: patients; visitors of patients; a female doctor and some of my friends and family – came to my bedside with a comforting touch of a hand or a few words of compassion. They infused me with the strength to cope with the loss of my baby in such a horrendous way. I have always been against abortion, and now I had terminated the life of my baby boy with a scribbled signature on a consent form. To this day, I can’t make up my mind whether or not I did the right thing. Sometimes I am proud I had the strength to save him from suffering, and then another day I will be overcome with guilt.

When I got home I was told a heart-rending story by Grandma (Mum’s mum) about a baby boy she had given birth to in 1930 before Mum was born. She was in tears when she told me medical staff had called her anencephalic baby boy ‘a monster birth’ and had wrapped his little body quickly as soon as his umbilical cord had been cut, so that nobody would have to look at his terrible defects. Mum’s mouth was open in shock, because she had never known before about her stillborn brother. My elderly neighbour came round with some flowers on hearing my sad news – she had also lost a baby, seven months into a pregnancy.

I was overwhelmed by all the female love, support and friendship I received.  My neighbour referred to it as a ‘unique club’. She said its members would wrap their arms around me and help me through the pain of losing my child, but that I would never forget, because a mother could never forget a lost child.

She was right. Other women did help enormously, but even as I write this now – on 11th June 2012 – the tears are welling in my eyes for the loss of my firstborn son. I loved him with all my heart even though I never got the chance to hold him in my arms, see his first smile or hear him call me ‘mummy’.

Imagination is a truly wonderful thing and daydreaming is seriously under-rated. Through the intervening years Michael (without anencephaly) has grown up alongside my other three children in my daydreams. He has started school; played on the beach with his brother and sister; slept in his bunk in our 6-berth caravan … there are too many occasions to mention.  I know what he looks like as an adult. I knew what he looked like at four when, in my dreamworld, he started school. I watched him play football at eleven … be taught by his dad how to use a shotgun at fourteen … start a new job in a suit and tie at twenty …

A brilliant idea came to me.  Michael’s life may remain forever unlived, but in the pages of a novel he could be brought to life because the power of the written word would deliver him into the imaginations of his father, his brothers and sister, his aunt and uncle and cousins. Every reader whose imagination I energised with my novel would also know Michael and the man he had now become.

In just a few, short seconds, I had made up my mind.  I would write my novel as a tribute to motherhood, and for all the women who would forever mourn their lost babies, and I would bring Michael to life through the written word.

When I write a story or a novel, for me there has to be an element of deliberative rhetoric. I like to give the reader something to mull over in their minds and leave them with a warm afterglow after they have finished reading the story. Using Mum’s analogy in her last words to Emily was going to be important. I knew I wanted to use the family tree as a symbol in the novel and the first, fragile roots of a family tree begin with parental love. I also wanted to satisfy my virtual reader (see Chapter 2).

Although I had already loosely plotted the story, it needed these last, crucial ingredients to make it special.  Michael’s short, physical existence inside my womb did have a purpose in my life. I allways knew I would find it one day, nothwithstanding the fact that his sister (Emily) decided to become a teacher of children with special needs and profound learning difficulties because of his brief existence as her brother.

Although I hadn’t yet written a single word, The White Cuckoo had been conceived and all its genetic material was there, ready to form itself into something unique, beautiful and perfect, just like Michael would have been, had part of his genetic material not been blighted by one of my faulty genes.

In the novel, Michael is ‘Harry’ in 1910 and ‘Paul’ in the present day. Here, in this excerpt,  the reader is introduced to Harry as a fourteen-year-old. He has just ran away with thirteen year old Jessie, who has been cast out of her family in shame because she is pregnant after being raped by Frederick de Montpelier, the Earl of Fawsden’s eldest son.

Harry felt uneasy as a nagging finger of fear replaced the tight fist of anger in his heart and began to prod somewhere behind his breastbone. It was dangerous for a woman to give birth prematurely; that much he did know. A sudden panic quickened his breathing, as if he had just sprinted through rain sodden, unharvested fields of corn. He couldn’t bear to live without Jessie. They were the best of friends and it had always been so, right from the first day they had played together as toddlers in the grounds of Fawsden Hall where his father was a gardener and her mother was the head cook.
He desperately needed to find them work and lodgings: somewhere permanent to live. What would they do in winter? Where would they end up? He knew that to try and achieve justice for Jessie was futile – no one would listen to the testimony of a fourteen-year-old gamekeeper’s apprentice against that of the well respected Earl of Fawsden and his cunning, devious sons.  Nobility was above the law.  Nobility had the money to corrupt and poison the legal system; everyone knew that.
Harry buttoned up his trousers and rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly to focus through the early morning blanket of mist. His gaze fell onto the dull silhouette of a church spire in the distance. He pictured a scene in his mind. The parson’s wife would soon be busy in the kitchen of the vicarage, preparing breakfast. She wouldn’t turn them away, would she? She would know what to do. Jessie needed urgent help and he had no other choice. He closed his eyes and lifted his gaze to the sky. He took off his cap, wrung it round and round in his hands, and then spoke out loud, feeling embarrassed, even though no one could hear him.
‘Dear God. I know I ain’t devout. I know I ain’t never bin to church or Sunday School. But please God, if you’re there and can hear me now, from the bottom of me ‘art please save Jessie and her little baby. Amen.’
Remaining still and silent, Harry kept his eyes tightly shut. He filled his lungs with damp, peaty air and focused on what he knew he had to do to save Jessie. It didn’t matter about himself – as long as Jessie was safe, he would be content.

Next week’s instalment will be published on 22nd June.

(The Anencephaly Support Group is committed to giving parents who have been affected by anencephaly all the help and information they need to come to terms with the ethical dilemmas surrounding this condition.)