I think that The Christmas Tale of Elaine Gale by Daniel Thompson is the first book that I have read that came about thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. I heard about it on a Facebook group and jumped at the chance to review the book, it sounded intriguing and I knew that having a Christmas theme would appeal to my children who are aged seven.
When the book arrived my daughter was especially excited. She did try and read it but found the font quite difficult so soon gave up and asked me to read it to her. The font and the way it is worded means that it isn’t, in my opinion, suitable for a learner reader to read themselves. To fully appreciate the rhyming it is also best read by a confident reader. Even I struggled at times with the book, the font and unexpected words used to help with the rhyming did not suit my dyslexia, but this was minimal and just required more concentration on my part. At 96 pages the book is also quite long, far longer than our usual bedtime story so we spread it over a couple of nights.
The book is a lot of fun. I loved the story and especially loved that Claire, the girl who names Elaine Gale is the leader of the group and the one who helps to defeat Elaine Gale, with Santa’s help of course. Definitely a great book for girl power. The story was great, fun and a bit scary but fast moving and very clever.
I think that this book would be loved by children aged 6+, it is a little scary and it is quite wordy so I don’t think that younger children will appreciate it as much. I’m sure that we will be reading this book for quite a few Christmas’ to come.
Review by Dora aged seven:
I loved the pictures, I didn’t like Elaine Gale because she was mean. I loved the Santa part. I loved the start and I loved the building of the snowman.
Review by Jake aged seven:
I loved the pictures and I loved the book.
About the Author:
I’m Danny, a Poet/film maker/musician and all round creative human from Birmingham.
I wrote this book because I love Christmas and I wanted to create something to add to the already rich tapestry of the Christmas festivities. I felt it was really important to tell an original Christmas story that a new generation of readers can claim as their own. I am really proud of what Connor and I have created with this book and I hope you enjoy our work.
About the Illustrator:
I’m Connor, a graphic design student and illustrator from Birmingham.
For me the book was an exciting project to work on because its quirky story and writing style really inspired my imagination. As a Christmas story it was unlike anything already available, this refreshing look at the Christmas story gave me a lot to work with. I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I loved making it.
I need to be honest, I have absolutely no idea what I was thinking when I decided that I would read Snowflakes and Christmas Cakes. I don’t ‘do’ chick lit. If I’m honest I’m probably a little bit snobbish about it.
So I started the book with rather low expectations. But I do not mind admitting that I was wrong, very wrong. I really, really enjoyed reading Snowflakes and Christmas Cakes, the characters were interesting and believable. I often thought that the outcome was very obvious, but it wasn’t! The author kept me on my toes just enough, while weaving a lovely story. It made a nice change from the crime and thriller books that I normally read, and probably quite a healthy change at that.
While Snowflakes and Christmas Cakes was a nice, easy read, I did not want it to finish. When I did I saw that there was a sequel. Yay, I was so going to read that. And then I saw that there are, in fact, six books in the series! I hope to make my way through all of them over time.
I really liked the Lake District setting, and although I’m typically very Bah Humbug until about a week before Christmas the Christmas setting didn’t put me off, it didn’t play a huge part in the story.
If you like chick lit then read this. If you don’t normally read chick lit but think that a change of genre would be good, then read this. It’s good!!
“Have you checked in yet, Millie?”
“Yes, Nicole, I have! Don’t panic. I told you I’d make an extra special effort to arrive in
plenty of time, didn’t I? I’m relaxing in the Departure Lounge with a caffè latte and the latest
edition of Voici, soaking up the last rays of sunshine I’ll see for the next two weeks.”
She had no intention of admitting to her super-organised sister that Monique and Hélène
had insisted on collecting her from her bedsit above Brasserie Étienne, then driven her at
stomach-wrenching speed to Nice airport and marched her, still stuffing her passport into her
hand luggage, to the check-in desk. They’d even had the audacity to hang around whilst she
wound her way through security just to make absolutely sure she didn’t meet with some
diversion and miss her flight – not an unknown, or indeed infrequent, occurrence.
“Typical. Just this once I hoped you’d stuck to your usual schedule of taking every
deadline to the wire!”
Millie detected a note of anxiety rather than impatience in Nicole’s voice. “Why? What’s
“I’m so sorry, Millie. It’s Édouard’s father. He’s had a stroke – been rushed into hospital in
Paris. His mother’s frantic – not sure whether he’ll survive the night.” Millie heard her
younger sister gulp down her emotions. “We’re dashing across to France as we speak. As it’s
the last weekend before Christmas it’s an absolute nightmare. St Pancras is in the throes of a
pre-Christmas exodus. We just managed to grab the last five seats on the Eurostar.”
“Oh, Nicole, no. Poor Édouard. Is there anything I can do?”
“Well, that’s why I’m calling. Obviously it means you can’t spend Christmas with us in
Norfolk now. I’m so sorry, Millie. I had everything planned. The girls were more than excited
about spending some alone time with their Auntie Camille this weekend whilst I was in the
Lakes and then having you stay on for the holidays. You’re still welcome to stay at our house,
“Thanks, Nic, but it won’t be the same without its riotous rabble of occupants.”
“You could always go back home to Lourmarin? Spend Christmas with François?”
“Ah, no I can’t. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get away. I wasn’t going to tell you, especially
now. I don’t want to add to your burden, but it’s over between me and François. He dumped
me. Scooted off to Paris. He’s even closed the restaurant for the duration of the holidays. First
A slice of pain scorched through her throat but Millie ignored it. Now that she’d broken
the news she needed to get the whole story out into the open. “Monique told me he’s gone
with Heidi. I’m sorry, Nic, you’ve got enough deal with. Look, don’t worry about me. Send
my love to Édouard’s parents. Anyway, I’ve always wanted to spend some time mooching
round the shops in London.”
“So, if you’re sure you still want to come over…”
“What? Is there something else you’re not telling me?”
“Well, you know how grateful I was when you agreed to look after the girls whilst I
tutored the Christmas cookery school for Anne?”
Millie softened her voice. She adored her three nieces. “Nic, really, it’s no hardship. I love
being cast in the role of beloved aunt. Never mind, I’ll just catch an earlier flight back to
“Could I ask a favour, then?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I’ve just spoken to Anne. She might be a seasoned expert in presenting summer culinary
courses at her manor house in the Lake District, but this weekend was to be her first venture
into corporate Christmas culinary schools. She was relying on me. Of course she’s
sympathetic and totally understands, but she’s over at her villa in St. Lucia for the holidays so
she can’t step into the breach. I feel dreadful about leaving her in the lurch at such short
notice. And I’m worried she’ll be reticent about trusting me again. It’s a fabulous opportunity
to be invited to deliver an Anne Grainger course – and at the luxurious Craiglea Manor House
to boot. You know how keen I am to get into tutoring. I really don’t want to go back to being
a full-time food tech teacher when Daisy starts school. But maybe it’s a solution?”
“What’s a solution? Oh no, hang on…”
So if my review and the first Chapter have made you want to read Snowflakes and Christmas Cakes then you can enter the giveaway! But only if you live in the UK.
When all-round buttercream princess, Millie Carter, becomes stranded at Craiglea Manor Cookery School, she believes her chance of enjoying a merry festive season is over.
The village of Aisford is Christmas-card perfect, but Millie hates it – she hates the snow, her freezing fingertips, and being forced to look like her Aunt Marjory in a mud-splattered wax jacket and wellies instead of her beloved shorts and sparkly sandals.
She plots her escape but ends up locking spatulas with the estate manager, Fergus McKenzie, who is forced to rescue her before she succumbs to a severe dose of hypothermia. Things start to improve with the arrival of handsome Sam Morgan, fresh from the beaches and rum shacks of the Caribbean.
Can Millie accept her fate? And will Aisford sprinkle some of its seasonal magic on her troubles?
Snowflakes and Christmas Cakes is a festive story of love and friendship and reaching for the buttercream icing and edible glitter when life gets tough.
Lindsey Paley is a Yorkshire girl and author of contemporary romance novels with page-turning plotlines and satisfying endings. When not scribbling away in her peppermint and cream writer’s retreat (shed) she loves baking cakes, enjoying a spot of afternoon tea with friends and taking long walks in the countryside. Snowflakes and Christmas Cakes is the first book in the Camille Carter series set in the beautiful Lake District and the Caribbean. The latest in the series is April Showers and Wedding Flowers and is out now.
Ava Devlin swiped the email hard to the left and watched it disappear from the screen of her iPhone. That’s what you did with messages from liars and fakes who had whispered one thing into your ear, as they wrapped their arms around you, and did the complete opposite when your back was turned. She swallowed back a bitter feeling. She had always worried that Leo – successful, rich, good-looking in a Joey Essex kind of way – was maybe a little bit out of her league.
‘Boss or boyfriend?’
The question came from Sissy, the hairdresser who was currently coating Ava’s head in foils and a paste that felt as if it was doing nuclear things to Ava’s scalp.
‘Neither,’ she answered, putting the phone on the counter under the mirror in front of her. A sigh left her. ‘Not any more.’ She needed to shake this off like Taylor Swift.
Giving her reflection a defiant look, she enlarged her green eyes, flared the nostrils of her button nose and set her lips into a deliberate pout she felt she had never quite been able to pull off. With her face positioned like she was a Z-list celeb doing a provocative selfie on Twitter, she knew she was done. With men. With love. With everything. Her ears picked up the dulcet tones of Cliff Richard suggesting mistletoe and wine, floating from the salon sound system. Her eyes then moved from her reflection to the string of tinsel and fir cones that surrounded the mirror. This rinky-dink Christmas crap could do one as well. Coming right up was a nation getting obsessed with food they never ate in the other eleven months – dates, walnuts, an entire board of European cheeses – and a whole two weeks of alterations to the television schedule – less The Wright Stuff and more World’s Strongest Man. And now she was on her own with it.
‘Well,’ Sissy said, dabbing more goo on Ava’s head, ‘I always think Christmas is a good time to be young, free and single.’ She giggled, drawing Ava’s attention back to the effort Sissy was putting into her hair. ‘All those parties… people loosening up with goodwill and…’
‘Stella Artois?’ Ava offered.
‘You don’t drink that, do you?’ Sissy exclaimed as if Ava had announced she was partial to Polonium 210. ‘I had a boyfriend once who was allergic to that. If he had more than four it made him really ill.’
‘Sissy, that isn’t an allergy, that’s just getting drunk.’
‘On lager?’ Sissy quizzed. ‘Doesn’t it mix well with shots?’
Ava was caught between a laugh and a cry. She swallowed it down and focussed again on the mirror. Why was she here having these highlights put in? She’d booked the appointment when she’d had the work do to go to. Now, having caught Leo out with Cassandra, she wouldn’t need perfect roots to go with the perfect dress he’d bought her. She didn’t even like the dress. It was all red crushed velvet like something a magician’s assistant might wear. Like something her mother might wear. But Leo had said she looked beautiful and she remembered how that had made her feel at the time. All lies.
‘Stop,’ Ava stated abruptly, sitting forward in her seat.
‘Stop?’ Sissy clarified. ‘Stop what? Talking? Putting the colour on?’
‘All of it,’ Ava said. She put her fingers to the silver strips on her head and tugged.
‘What are you doing? Don’t touch them!’ Sissy said, as if one wrong move was going to detonate an explosive device.
‘I want them off… out…not in my hair!’ Ava gripped one foil between her fingers, pulling.
‘OK, OK, but not like that, you’ll pull your hair out.’
‘I want a new look.’ Ava scooped up her hair in her palms, pulling it away from her face and angling her head to check out the look. Nothing would make her jawline less angular or her lips thinner. She sighed. ‘Cut it off.’ She wanted it to come out strong, decisive, but her voice broke a little at the end and when she looked back at Sissy, she saw pity growing in her hairdresser’s eyes.
‘Well… I have to finish the tinting first.’ Sissy bit her lip.
Ava didn’t want pity. ‘Well, finish the tinting and then cut it off,’ she repeated.
‘Trim it, you mean,’ Sissy said, her eyes in the mirror, looking back at Ava.
Ava shook her remaining silver-wrapped hair, making it rustle. ‘No, Sissy, I don’t want it trimmed. I want it cut off.’ She pulled in a long, steady breath. ‘I’m thinking short… but definitely more Bowie in his heyday than Jedward.’
‘That short.’ Sissy was almost choking on the words.
‘You did say a change was good,’ Ava answered. ‘Change me.’ She sat back until she could feel the pleather at her back. ‘Make me completely unrecognisable even to my mother.’ She closed her eyes. ‘In fact, especially to my mother.’
With her eyes shut, she blocked out everything – Cliff Richard, the tinsel and fir cones, Leo. A different style was just what she needed. Something that was going to go with her new outlook on life. A haircut that was going to say, You can look, but if you set one eyelash into my personal space, suggesting joy to the world, you will be taken down. Nothing or nobody was going to touch her.
Ava’s phone let out a bleep and she opened one eye, squinting at the screen. Why didn’t Leo just give up? Why wasn’t he suctioned to Cassandra like he had been for God knows how long? She was betting Cassandra had never had to use Clearasil.
Sissy leant forward, regarding the phone screen. ‘It says it’s from Debs.’
Cheered considerably, Ava reached for the phone, picking it up and reading the message.
[TEXT STARTS]I know I said not to bring anything, but I totes forgot to get something Christmassy. Can you get something Christmassy? To eat… like those crisps that are meant to taste like turkey and stuffing or roasted nuts and cranberry. And bring red wine, not white, because I got three bottles of white today. And if you’ve completely forgotten all about coming to mine tonight for neighbourly nibbles before I leave for Paris then this is your reminder. Debs xx[TEXT ENDS]
Debs texted like she was writing a dissertation. There was no OMG, FFS or TMI with Ava’s best friend. And Ava had forgotten about the ‘neighbourly nibbles’. That was what having a break-up on your plate did to you – addled your brain and fried the important relationship circuits. Well, she was taking control now – elusive and aloof to anyone but her best friend – and the only frazzled motherboard was going to be the one with wires connected to men.
Ava looked into the mirror at Sissy. ‘After you’ve cut it, Sissy, I want you to make me blonder,’ she stated. ‘And not the honey kind.’ She smiled. ‘The Miley Cyrus meltdown kind.’
They say Paris is the City of Love, so bring your je ne sais quoi and don’t forget the mistletoe! Ava and her best friend Debs arrive in Paris just as the snow starts to fall. The Eiffel Tower glitters gold and the scent of spiced wine is all around, but all Ava can think about is Leo, her no-good, cheating ex.
Debs is on a mission to make Ava smile again, and as they tour the Christmas markets, watch lamplight glittering on the river Seine, and eat their body weight inpain-au-chocolat, Ava remembers there’s more to life than men … Until they cross paths with handsome, mysterious photographer Julien with his French accent and hazelnut eyes that seem to see right inside her.
Ava can’t ignore the intense chemistry between them, but her fingers have been burned before and she can’t forget it, especially when her ex, Leo, starts texting again. Can Ava really trust Julien – and what exactly is his secret?
Will Ava go home with a broken heart, or will she find true love amongst the cobbled streets of Paris?
Join Ava and Julien in the most romantic city in the world this Christmas, as they discover the importance of being true to themselves, and learn how to follow their hearts.
One Christmas in Paris is a gorgeous, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy – perfect for fans of Jane Costello, Miranda Dickinson and Lucy Diamond.
About the author:
Mandy Baggot is an award-winning author of romantic women’s fiction and a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. In Feb 2016, her Bookouture novel, One Wish in Manhattan was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Romantic Comedy Novel of the Year award. A contributor to writing blogs and short story anthologies, she is also a regular speaker at literary festivals, events and women’s networking groups.
Mandy loves mashed potato, white wine, country music, Corfu and handbags. She has appeared on ITV1’s Who Dares Sings and auditioned for The X-Factor and lives in Wiltshire, UK with her husband, two children and cats Kravitz and Springsteen.
Leah used the scissors from her Christmas wreath-making project to open the package from Nan, her hands trembling. She missed her grandmother so much that she held her breath from the moment her fingers touched the envelope. She set the scissors next to the pile of spruce needles that were still on the kitchen table and ran her fingers through her thick, blonde hair. She’d straightened it that morning, but after all day in the rain and sleet, it had started to curl back up.
Tipping the package upside down, Leah caught a lone key in the palm of her hand, recognizing it immediately. She pulled out a stack of documents with a note in Nan’s scratchy handwriting clipped to the top. The notepaper was pink and lacy, the edges rounded delicately with little holes punched out. She laid the documents on top of a few Christmas cards that had come in the mail and focused on the letter, aching to hear Nan’s soft, reassuring voice again.
“Mama,” Leah’s daughter, Sadie said, pulling her out of her thoughts. She was still wearing the red-and-blue leotard Leah had gotten her as a surprise for her birthday. Sadie had seen it in her gymnastics magazine and she’d kept the page open to it all the time. When Leah had asked her about it, she’d said that one day she’d like to have one of her own. Together, they’d made the matching bow clip in her white blonde hair. Every day after school she put it all on to practice her gymnastics. And she was quite the natural.
“The Girls are here,” Sadie said. She bent down, placing her hands on the tile floor, between the table and the kitchen counter, keeping her feet in place until she lifted a leg into the air. Slowly, from a perfect standing split, she put her other leg up, straightening out into a handstand. Sadie had learned to do this move slowly, as swift movements used to send Leah leaping across the kitchen, throwing her arms around Sadie’s legs while simultaneously grabbing dishes and knick-knacks to keep them safe. But when Sadie did it slowly, Leah was able to see the precision in her movements, her skill evident, and she didn’t worry at all. Leah grinned.
Sadie righted herself and opened the side door that led to the driveway, sending a wave of wintery air in past the new wreath Leah had made from evergreens she’d found in the woods. She’d just hung it today. Leah slid the contents and the letter back into the envelope and put the key in her pocket. Another gust sent a chill through her as The Girls came in chattering together, Roz short and Louise tall, both swaddled in their winter gear.
“The Girls” was the name Leah had given to herself and her two best friends when they’d first met. They’d started out as a single mothers’ group of around seven women, which Leah had joined after meeting Roz, her coworker at the florist’s. But over the years, The Girls had dwindled to three—Leah, Roz and Louise—and they’d become more than a support group. They’d become best friends. Tonight, Leah was having them over for a late dinner.
“You’re early,” Leah said with a grin as Roz, all bundled up in a dark burgundy, double-breasted peacoat and striped fingerless gloves, set a bottle of wine on the counter dramatically. It was some sort of cutesy specialty wine with a gold, swirling Christmas tree on the label.
“Louise was insistent that the snow was going to fall all at once and if we waited any longer we wouldn’t be able to drive here,” Roz said, pulling off her gloves and dumping them on the counter. She ran her hand around Sadie’s ponytail affectionately and gave her a wink. Then she shrugged off her coat. Roz walked over to the cupboards and started rummaging around for wine glasses. Leah smiled—she liked how Roz felt as comfortable as if she were in her own house. She was like family.
“At least I can say we’re safe,” Louise said, giving Leah a side hug as she was holding a bowl of salad and a tin of cookies in her other arm. She was covered from head to toe, with a hunter-green, wooly scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, covering her long, red hair. “And you’re sure we can camp out here if the snow does start to fall?”
“We hardly ever have that kind of snow this early in the season,” Roz said, busying herself at the sink. “But I brought my toothbrush just in case!”
Leah’s house was small—a brick rancher tucked away behind a thick strip of woods that separated it from the main street, a four-lane expanse of pavement which was teeming at this time of year with holiday shoppers as they crawled along in traffic to get from one shop to another. But the woods allowed some privacy, and at night, in the dark, it seemed almost secluded. She had rented the house for its proximity to work and the cozy feel of the living room. Although quite crowded when everyone got together, it had offered a comfortable space to make memories with Sadie.
Louise looked at Leah thoughtfully for a second, as if just noticing her. “How are you?” she asked, studying her face until the pop of the wine cork behind them pulled her attention away.
Her friend could always read her. Leah was dying to see what Nan’s letter said, but she didn’t want to bring everyone down tonight by bursting into tears. It was supposed to be a fun night with The Girls.
“I’m fine, thanks.” Leah smiled. “I was just going through the mail…”
“Well, ignore it!” Roz said, swinging a glass full of red wine her way. The purple color of it nearly matched Roz’s dark hair. It was bottle-black, her latest beauty experiment, and in the light, it had almost a reddish-purple tint to it. “We’re going to have an amazing night of…” As she pressed her bright red lips together in thought, she handed the other glass to Louise. “What are we doing tonight besides drinking wine and having dinner? Did anyone get a movie or anything?”
“I thought we could play cards,” Louise piped up, taking a dainty sip from her glass and looking back and forth between Roz and Leah. “I brought some. They’re Toy Story though.”
Roz snorted as Louise pulled her five-year-old’s cards from her handbag.
“I couldn’t find mine so I took some from Ethan’s room,” she said.
Sadie climbed up into a kitchen chair and reached for one of the silver, foil-wrapped chocolates that Leah had put out for tonight. The two of them had started their Christmas decorating today, and they’d been nibbling on those chocolates since early afternoon. Leah gave her daughter her best not-too-many face.
Roz poured one more glass of wine for herself and then filled a glass full of fruit punch for Sadie. Both Roz and Louise had the weekend free since their children were with their fathers, but Leah didn’t have anyone to help with Sadie, so Sadie always joined them. She was like an honorary member of The Girls.
ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS by Jenny Hale – out 6th October
All I Want for Christmas is a big, cozy Christmas story about the importance of family, the strength of childhood friendships, and learning to trust your heart.
Fans of Carole Matthews, Susan Wiggs and Susan Mallery – and anyone who likes the glow of Christmas lights and the rustle of wrapping paper – will fall in love with this feel-good Christmas treat.
Christmas comes once a year . . . But true love comes once in a lifetime.
Snowflakes are falling, there’s carol singing on every corner, and Leah Evans is preparing for a family Christmas at her grandmother’s majestic plantation house in Virginia. It won’t be the same now that her beloved Nan is gone, but when Leah discovers she has inherited the mansion, she knows she can give her daughter Sadie the childhood of her dreams.
But there’s a catch. Leah must split the house with a man called David Forester. Leah hasn’t heard that name in a long time. Not since they were kids, when Davey was always there to catch her.
Now David is all grown up. He’s gorgeous, successful, and certain of one thing: Leah should sell him her half of the house.
They can’t agree, but as they share memories over wine by the log fire, Leah notices a fluttering in her stomach. And by the look in his eyes, he’s starting to feel it too.
Will it be Leah or David who must give up their dreams? Or, with a little bit of Christmas magic, will they finally understand Nan’s advice to them both about living life without regrets … and take a chance on true love?
About the author:
When she graduated college, one of Jenny’s friends said “Look out for this one; she’s going to be an author one day”. Despite being an avid reader and a natural storyteller, it wasn’t until that very moment that the idea of writing novels occurred to her.
Sometimes our friends can see the things that we can’t. Whilst she didn’t start straight away, that comment sowed a seed and several years, two children and hundreds of thousands of words later, Jenny finished her first novel – Coming Home for Christmas – which became an instant bestseller.
Part of me, a small irrational part, needed it to stay exactly where it was, atop the faded Persian rug, bowing beneath the visceral pulse of her letters and the remembered whisper from the scratch of her pen. The rosewood chair, with its slim turned-out legs, suspended forevermore in hopeful expectation of her return. Like me, I wondered if it couldn’t help but wish that somehow she still could.
I hadn’t had the strength to clear it, nor the will. Neither had Dad and so it remained standing sentry, as it had throughout the years with Mum at the wheel, the heart, the hub of the living room.
If I closed my eyes, I could still hear her hum along to Tchaikovsky – her pre-Christmas music – as she wrapped up presents with strings, ribbons and clear cellophane, into which she’d scatter stardust and moonbeams, or at least so it seemed to my young eyes. Each gift, a gift within a gift.
One of my earliest memories is of me sitting before the fire, rolling a length of thick red yarn for Fat Arnold, our squashed-face Persian, who languished by the warmth, his fur pearly white in the glow. His one eye open while his paw twitched, as if to say he’d play, if only he could find the will. In the soft light Mum sat and laughed, the firelight casting lowlights in her long blonde hair. I shut my eyes and took a deep breath, away from the memory of her smile.
Dad wanted me to have it: her old writing desk. I couldn’t bear to think of the living room without it, but he insisted. He’d looked at me, above his round horn-rimmed glasses, perpetual tufts of coarse grey hair poking out mad-hatter style on either side of his head, and said with his faraway philosopher’s smile, ‘Ivy, it would have made her happy, knowing that you had it. . .’ And I knew I’d lost.
Still it had taken me two weeks to get up the nerve. Two weeks and Stuart’s gentle yet insistent prodding. He’d offered to help, to at least clear it for me, and bring it through to our new home so that I wouldn’t have to face it. Wouldn’t have to reopen a scar that was trying its best to heal. He’d meant well. I knew that he would’ve treated her things reverently; he would’ve stacked all her letters, tied them up with string, his long fingers slowly rolling up the lengths of old ribbon and carefully putting them away into a someday box that I could open when I was ready. It was his way, his sweet, considerate Stuart way. But I knew I had to be the one who did it. Like a bittersweet rite of passage, some sad things only you can do yourself. So I gathered up my will, along with the box at my feet and began.
It was both harder and easier than I expected. Seeing her things as she left them should have made the lump in my throat unbearable, it should have been intolerable, but it wasn’t somehow.
I began with the drawer, emptying it of its collection of creamy, loose-leafed paper; fine ribbons; and assorted string, working my way to the heart of the Victorian desk, with its warren of pigeon holes, packed with old letters, patterned envelopes, stamps, watercolour brushes, and tubes of half-finished paint.
But it was the half-finished tasks that made the breath catch in my throat. A hand-painted Christmas card, with Santa’s sleigh and reindeer flying over the chimney tops, poor Rudolph eternally in wait for his little watercolour nose. Mum had always made her own, more magical and whimsical than any you could buy. My fingers shook as I held the card in my hand, my throat tight. Seeing this, it’s little wonder I became a children’s book illustrator. I put it on top of the pile, so that later I could paint in Santa’s missing guiding light.
It was only when I made to close the desk that I saw it: a paper triangle peeking out from the metal hinge. It was tightly wedged but, after some wiggling, I pried it loose, only – in a way – to wish I hadn’t.
It was a beautiful, vintage French postcard, like the ones we’d bought when we holidayed there, when I was fifteen and fell in love with everything en français. It had a faded sepia print of the Jardin des Tuileries on the cover, and in elegant Century print it read ‘[Century font writing] Carte Postale’ on the back.
It was blank. Except for two words, two wretchedly perfect little words that caused the tears that had threatened all morning to finally erupt.
It was addressed to me. I didn’t know which was worse: the unexpected blow of being called ‘Darling Ivy’ one last time, finding out she’d had this last unexpected gift waiting for me all along, or that she’d never finish it. I suppose it was a combination of all three.
Three velvet-tipped daggers that impaled my heart.
I placed it in the box together with the unfinished Christmas card and sobbed, as I hadn’t allowed myself to for years.
Five years ago, when she passed, I believed that I’d never stop. A friend had told me that ‘time heals all wounds’ and it had taken every ounce of strength not to give her a wound that time would never heal, even though I knew she’d meant well. Time, I knew, couldn’t heal this type of wound. Death is not something you get over. It’s the rip that exposes life in a before and after chasm and all you can do is try to exist as best you can in the after. Time could only really offer a moment when the urge to scream would become a little less.
Another friend of mine, who’d lost his leg and his father in the same day, explained it better. He’d said that it was a loss that every day you manage and some days are better than others. That seemed fair. He’d said that death for him was like the loss of the limb, as even on those good days you were living in the shadow of what you had lost. It wasn’t something you recovered from completely, no matter how many people, yourself included, pretended otherwise. Somehow that helped, and I’d gotten used to living with it, which I suppose was what he meant.
The desk wasn’t heavy. Such a substantial part of my childhood, it felt like it should weigh more than it did, but it didn’t and I managed it easily alone. I picked it up and crossed the living room, through the blue-carpeted passage, pausing only to shift it slightly as I exited the back door towards my car, a mint green Mini Cooper.
Setting the desk down on the cobbled path, I opened up my boot, releasing the back seats so they folded over before setting the desk on top, with a little bit of careful manoeuvring. It felt strange to see it there, smaller than I remembered. I shut the boot and went back inside for the chair and the box where I’d placed all her things; there was never any question of leaving it behind. On my way back, I locked up Dad’s house, a small smile unfurling as I noticed the little wreath he’d placed on the door, like a green shoot through the snow after the longest winter. It hadn’t been Christmas here for many years.
Back to my car, I squeezed the chair in next to the desk and placed the box on the passenger seat before I climbed in and started the engine. As the car warmed, I looked at my reflection in the side mirror and laughed, a sad groaning laugh.
My eyeliner had made tracks all down my face, leaving a thick trail into my ears, and black blobs on either side of my lobes so that I looked like I’d participated in some African ritual, or had survived the mosh pit at some death metal goth fest. With my long dark blonde curls, coral knitted cap and blue eyes, it made me look a little zombiefied.
I wiped my face and ears and grinned despite myself. ‘God, Mum, thanks for that!’ I put the car in gear and backed out of the winding drive, towards the coastal road.
It was hard to believe I was back, after all these years.
London had been exciting, tiring, and trying. And grey, so very grey. Down here, it seemed, was where they keep the light; my senses felt as if they’d been turned up.
For a while, London had been good though, especially after Mum. For what it lacked in hued lustre, it made up for by being alive with people, ideas, and the hustling bustle. It was a different kind of pace. A constant rush. Yet, lately I’d craved the stillness and the quiet. So when The Fudge Files, a children’s fiction series that I co-wrote and illustrated with my best friend Catherine Talty, about a talking English bulldog from Cornwall who solves crimes, became a bestseller, we were finally able to escape to the country.
In his own way, Stuart had wanted the move more than I did; he was one of those strange creatures who’d actually grown up in London, and said that this meant it was high time that he tried something else.
In typical Stuart fashion, he had these rather grand ideas about becoming a self-sustaining farmer – something akin to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – and setting up a smallholding similar to Hugh’s River Cottage. The simple fact of it being Cornwall, not Dorset, was considered inconsequential. Which perhaps it was. I had to smile. Our River Cottage was called Sea Cottage (very original that), yet was every bit as exquisite as its namesake, with a rambling half acre of countryside, alongside rugged cliffs that overlooked the aquamarine waters of the Atlantic Ocean in the gorgeous village of Cloudsea with its mile-long meandering ribbon of whitewashed cottages with window frames and doors in every shade of blue imaginable, perched amid the wild, untamed landscape, seemingly amongst the clouds, tumbling down to the sea. It was the place I always dreamt about when someone asked me where I would choose to live if I could magically supplant myself with a snap of my fingers or be granted a single genie’s wish. Cloudsea. And now. . . now we lived here. It was still hard to believe.
So far our ‘livestock’ consisted of four laying hens, two grey cats named Pepper and Pots, and an English bulldog named Muppet – the living, slobbering and singular inspiration behind Detective Sergeant Fudge (Terrier Division) of The Fudge Files, as created by Catherine, Muppet’s official godmother.
Despite Stuart’s noble intentions, he was finding it difficult to come to terms with the idea of keeping animals as anything besides pets. Personally, I was a little grateful for that. We assuaged our consciences though by ensuring that we supported local organic farms, where we were sure that all the animals were humanely treated.
But what we lacked in livestock, Stuart made up for in vegetation. His potager was his pride and joy and even now, in the heart of winter, he kept a polytunnel greenhouse that kept us in fresh vegetables throughout the year. Or at least that was the plan; we’d only been here since late summer. I couldn’t imagine his excitement come spring.
For me Cornwall was both a fresh start and a homecoming. For the first time ever I had my own art studio up in the attic, with dove grey walls, white wooden floors, and a wall full of shelves brimming with all my art supplies; from fine watercolour paper to piles of brushes and paint in every texture and medium that my art-shop-loving heart could afford. The studio, dominated by the mammoth table, with its slim Queen Anne legs, alongside the twin windows, made it a haven, with its view of the rugged countryside and sea. One where I planned to finish writing and illustrating my first solo children’s book.
Now, with our new home and the news that we’d been waiting seven years to hear, it would all be a new start for us.
I was finally, finally pregnant.
Seven rounds of in vitro fertilisation, which had included 2,553 days, 152 pointless fights, five serious, two mortgages, countless stolen tears in the dead of the night in the downstairs bathroom in our old London flat, my fist wedged in my mouth to stem the sound, and infinite days spent wavering between hope and despair, wondering if we should just give up and stop trying. That day, thankfully, hadn’t come.
And now I was twelve weeks pregnant. I still couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t told Dad yet; I didn’t want to get his hopes up, or tempt fate; we’d played that black card before.
It was why I so desperately wished Mum were here now. It would have made all of this more bearable. She had a way of making sense of the insensible, of offering hope at the darkest times, when all I wanted to do was run away. I missed how we used to sit up late at night by the fire in the living room, a pot of tea on the floor, while Fat Arnold dozed at our feet and she soothed my troubled fears and worries – the most patient of listeners, the staunchest of friends. Now, with so many failed pregnancies, including two miscarriages, the memory of which was like shrapnel embedded in our hearts, so that our lives had been laced with an expectant tinge of despair, primed for the nightmare to unfold, never daring to hope for the alternative; we were encouraged to hope. It was different, everyone said so, and I needed to trust that this time it would finally happen, that we’d finally have a baby, like the doctors seemed to think we would. Stuart had been wonderful, as had Catherine, but I needed Mum really, and her unshakeable, unbreakable faith.
There are a few times in a woman’s life when she needs her mother. For me, my wedding was one and I was lucky to have her there, if luck was what it was, because it seemed to be sheer and utter determination on her part. It had been so important to her to be there, even though all her doctors had told us to say our goodbyes. I will never know what it cost her to hold on the way she did, but she did and she stayed a further two years after that. In the end, it was perhaps the cruellest part, because when she did go, I’d convinced myself that somehow she’d be able to stay.
But this, this was different. I needed her now, more than ever. As I drove, the unstoppable flow of tears pooling in the hollow of my throat, I wished that we could have banked those two years, those two precious years that she had fought so hard and hung on for, so that she could be here with me now when I needed her the most.
A CORNISH CHRISTMAS by Lily Graham out on 30th September 2016