3: What is a Family?

As promised, here is the first extract from The White Cuckoo. Tammy is daydreaming and speculating on the nature of a family.

Harry and Jessie blossomed like leaves on a tree, thought Tammy. They withered and perished, but nothing had changed since they had first arrived in Lyverton nearly a hundred years ago. The blackbirds were still singing, the cuckoos calling, the hawthorn still blossomed and wafted its pungent smell on the spring breeze, just the same as ever, and the sun was shining down on the village – exactly as it had on midsummer’s day in 1910 when they’d turned up at the vicarage asking for help because Jessie was ill.

Tammy knew something far bigger than her was cradling her in its palm, bringing her home to Lyverton. She was not a lost child of her parents’ secrets, after all.  She had a place in the world, and it was right here in this village. Her eyes filled inexplicably with tears of happiness and the words on the page became blurry. As the hymn ended, she glanced sideways at her sister’s hands. They were hands that had shaped and formed from a disparate bundle of cells fifty years ago in the same womb that had created her. She breathed in a delicate smell of a distant perfume and felt the breeze from the open door on her face. Her mother’s soul was infused within them. Harry, Jessie and Alice seemed strangely a part of her, too. They may not have been related to Tammy by blood, but nevertheless they were claiming her for their own now she had come to Lyverton.


For me, the above extract from The White Cuckoo, which appears over half-way through the novel, expands on my mum’s pure, simplistic vision of a family tree studded with flowers, and a baby girl being born in the future to take her place on the tree. Lovely though this vision is, a family should consist of much more than blood relatives. It should draw people in and welcome them, if they want to stay a while. It should cross-pollinate with other families and become a network of caring and support, casting materialism aside as it draws its strength and currency from the people who live within it, the time they invest and the things they do for each other.

As I sat quietly on the coach home from my day trip to London, pretending to be having forty winks, I knew I wouldn’t need the prompt offered by the scrap of paper nestled in my pocket.  I wasn’t going to forget the eavesdropped conversation in the Natural History Museum, and until Emily’s baby was born, mum’s prophesy of a newborn granddaughter would never be far from my mind.

When I write, it is with my readers in mind. Before the dangled carrot of publication was snatched away from my grasp by being the wrong type of writer and having written the wrong kind of story at the wrong time, I used to write only for my own pleasure. If the novel that became The White Cuckoo was to be written just for me to enjoy the writing, I would have dug a hole in the story and unceremoniously plonked mum’s family tree in its root ball into the hole.  However, this novel was not going to be just for me, was it? It would possibly have a readership, and people have always been very important to me.

I imagined a potential reader. She was sitting in a small, neat garden one summer’s afternoon, drinking white wine, reading my book. She had no children, was an only-child herself and her parents were aged. I imagined her reaching the part in the novel where I had written about flowers blooming in the form of new babies. Behind my closed eyelids, I watched her as she put down her wine glass on a small table, replaced the bookmark in her novel, took off her sunglasses and then wiped a tear from her eye with her forefinger. She was upset because there would be no more blossom on her family tree and she had visualised it as barren, withering and dying.

I couldn’t bear the thought that I might have upset a reader through my own idealistic view or opinion. It would somehow adulterate the precious words I had used to craft the story. I wanted my reader to build her own castles in the sky and fit the words to her own situation, not mine.

As we travelled back from London, I pictured my mum’s tree expanding to include a community, and I eventually wrote this paragraph, only a few pages into the novel, to plant this conceptual seed into my imaginary reader’s mind:-

Tammy smiled at her and mumbled a returned greeting. The woman could be a relative. How would she know? A lone blackbird launched into its happy repertoire as if in competition with the thrush. Was the blackbird calling out to the village that its lost daughter had returned, full of optimism for a new chapter in her life? She stared at the nearby hawthorn bush, laden with tiny white flowers that breathed the distinctive smell of approaching summer into the air. She was suddenly envious of the microcosmic community where birds sang, brand new green shoots sprouted and blossom burst forth, insects buzzed and spring exploded life, colour and a tapestry of smells and sounds into its miniature world.

The character of Tammy was already an old friend. She had drifted into an abandoned novel, then finding herself with nothing much to occupy her inquisitive mind, she had gone off to sulk somewhere.  She tapped me on the shoulder on the coach, saying, if you need a young, female character,  here I am – already created and ready to go! The trouble was, Tammy was a gentle soul and if she was going to fit the bill she would have to toughen up somewhat.

So there you are – two extracts for the price of one.  What is your definition of a family? Apparently, according to the news earlier this week, there are now thirty-five different types of family set-up in Britain.

Next instalment on 1st June.

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