My husband had gone to a client meeting, my son had just left to meet friends when I decided to have a break and make a drink. Back in my study, I put my coffee on my desk and it was then I realised, somebody had been into my room.
But I was alone.
Fear prickled at the back of my neck. On my keyboard, was a Biscoff.
‘Hello?’ I called into the silence which now felt heavy and oppressive.
Grabbing my phone, I called my son.
‘There’s somebody in the house,’ I whispered. ‘They’ve left a warning on my keyboard.’
‘A warning or a biscuit?’ He asked.
‘Was it you? But you’re not here?’
‘I found it in my pocket when I got to the bottom of the road and thought I’d pop it back as they’re your favourite. Seriously, mum how could you think it was creepy?’
‘Because somebody could want me to think I’m losing my mind, doubting my reality. They-‘
‘You’ve got an overactive imagination,’ he said.
It’s something I’ve heard throughout my life, usually accompanied by an eye roll and a sigh. My school reports often started with ‘Louise is such a daydreamer.’ I am but now, rather than seeing it as a flaw, as I’ve always been led to believe, I look upon it as something positive. Although gazing out of the window and making up characters in my head may be a problem in many jobs, without my over active imagination I wouldn’t be living out my life-long dream of being an author.
For Mother’s Day, my youngest son bought me a fizzy bath bomb from Lush. We’d not had them before and he wanted to watch as I dropped it into the bath. Just before I let it go he said ‘look mum, there’s a secret message!’
Inside a small hole on the top of the bomb there was a tightly rolled piece of paper.
‘What do you think it says?’ he asked excitedly.
‘I think it says ‘drown, bitch,’ I said. ‘I don’t think it’s supposed to be revealed until you’re in the bath and as you stare in confusion at the words you become aware of someone standing behind you-‘
‘A hand on the top of your head,’ he said (he writes too…)
‘Which pushes you underwater and holds you down until you stop struggling.’
The disappointment when we read it said ‘thanks’ was immense.
My three sons are used to me now. One called me to tell me he’d lost his wallet he quickly followed it up with ‘and no I don’t think anyone will find it and leave my ID at a murder scene.’
‘You never know,’ I said, darkly.
Last weekend, we took our dog for a country walk and my son pointed out the perfect place to hide a body. I didn’t roll my eyes and sigh, tell him he’s got an overactive imagination as though it’s a bad thing. Instead, I encouraged him to explore the idea, write it down. If all potential story-tellers were made to feel having a vivid imagination is a bad thing there wouldn’t be as many books and that would be a very sad world indeed.
A year and a half ago we lost our beloved cocker spaniel, Molly. Our house and hearts felt colder. Emptier. After much discussion we decided not to get another dog. The children were growing, one already left home, and suddenly the time when it would become just the two of us didn’t seem quite so distant. We’d travel. Have spontaneous weekends away. The tie of another dog would be too much. We were approaching the time we’d be able to focus solely on us. We absolutely didn’t want another dog.
Until one day we did.
It was my husband who tentatively brought it up as he sipped his tea. ‘Life just doesn’t feel the same without a dog,’ he began. ‘I think…’.
I’d googled puppies before he’d finished his sentence and by the time he’d drained his mug I’d arranged for us to see a litter. At 4 o’clock.
We didn’t tell the children as we didn’t want to get their hopes up but I desperately wanted a labradoodle and was already picking out names as we drove to the appointment.
The litter were adorable, as all litters are. I climbed into the pen and waited to see which puppy came to me. They all did. Delighted, I looked up at my husband but as I saw his face my heart sank.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘The mother’s the size of an average sheep.’ He said.
And she was.
I’ve always loved big breeds but he didn’t.
‘Some are small and some grow so tall.’ The breeder told us. ‘You can’t predict with a mixed breed but they’re likely to be huge. She doesn’t even fit in my car.’
And so the pattern was set. Endless weekends spent visiting puppies from boxers to cockerpoos and everything in-between. I fell in love with them all. My husband didn’t. And yet I didn’t feel the urge to fight to bring them home. They were all gorgeous, and fluffy and cute but none of them felt like mine.
Last June we had one more appointment booked. We almost didn’t go. We’d decided to wait until after the school holidays but we’d never met a Sprockerpoo before (Springer/Cocker/Poodle) and we were curious. After losing two pure-breds to genetic health conditions we didn’t know entirely what we were searching for, but it wasn’t a pedigree.
Instantly, we fell in love and the feeling was mutual. Granger padded over, scrambled onto my lap, licked my hand and fell asleep and I knew I’d found him. The puppy who was meant to be ours.
‘Let’s think about it overnight.’ My husband said. ‘We don’t want to make s snap decision’ but I knew from the longing looks he was giving Granger he felt the same way I did. It became apparent when 10 minutes into our journey home he pulled into a lay-by. ‘I’d be devastated if someone else came and took him.’
I didn’t reply. I was too busy calling the breeder and saying yes.
A year ago today we brought him home.
The house felt different once more. He wasn’t a replacement for Molly and personality wise they are world’s apart, but each day he makes us laugh. We quickly found out he loves the garden, most days he spends hours chasing leaves, watching grass blow in the wind and it’s really made us appreciate the small things. How to find joy in the world around us. He loathes being alone, luckily my husband and I both work from home and my elder son works shifts so our house is never empty. He lies under my desk as I write my books, sometimes making me jump if he suddenly moves while I’m writing a scary scene and sometimes inspiring me. Branwell the dog, in my latest psychological thriller, The Date, is based on Granger.
If anyone goes out he seeks solace in their shoes, putting them in his basket until they return, not to chew, although initially there was a LOT of chewing, but for comfort. He’s gentle, placid, affectionate, adores racing around the park with other dogs but equally content curled up on the sofa. He doesn’t molt and doesn’t smell. Oh and he’s patient. So very patient, standing waiting his turn when the cat decides he wants to feast on dog food.
He’s ours and I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t.
There’s a fabulous scene in School of Rock where Jack Black, masquerading as a teacher, gets asked about his methods. Straight-faced he quotes ‘The Greatest Love of All’ lyrics, written by Linda Creed & recorded by Whitney Houston ‘I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way.’ Anyone who has seen the movie will know Jack’s reasons for teaching are intrinsically selfish at first but ultimately he inspires the kids with his passion for music.
Encouraging creativity in schools is so important. Sometimes I feel it can get a little lost amongst the league tables, the desire for academic excellence, the immense pressure on both teachers and children to produce results that exceed target levels. The younger generation, teenagers in particular, often get a bad press. My sons and their friends are polite, friendly, with a passion for politics and the environment that would put many adults to shame.
School visits are something I am doing more and more of. Not for marketing, my psychological thrillers are entirely unsuitable for children and I never take any to sell, or sign, but to share my experience of life inside and outside of education. I still remember that moment nearly thirty years ago when I sat in front of the careers advisor, palms prickling with nerves, stomach churning as I said out loud the thing I had never dared say before. ‘I want to be a writer.’ I still feel the crushing disappointment when she dismissed my dream with words that hit like bullets. ‘That’s not a career. You can’t earn a living from it. Go and work in an office.’ I often wonder if my school had focused a little more on creativity how different my career path might have been. How, if an author had visited and said ‘Yes, you absolutely can make a living writing. I’m doing it,’ whether I wouldn’t have given up quite so easily.
The last thing I want to do is make it seem is that the children’s dream careers are easily achievable but I want to impart that with hard work, determination and positivity there is nothing you can’t at least try to do and to encourage them to never lose that passion for the things we love, because as adults we often do. The things we enjoyed when we were young, cast as frivolous and time wasting, buried under a mountainous pile of routine, bills and domestic drudgery.
Write, paint, draw, sing, mould with clay. Never lose sight of who you are or what you love. The average life span is 4,000 weeks. Make the most of your precious time.
If just one child during tough times, remembers my visit, recalling how once a disabled mother, with limited education, came to their school and said ‘Yes, you can. Don’t give up,’ they might end up paying it forward one day. Encouragement, kindness and love are free to give and easily shared.
Anyone who has been anywhere near my social media pages the past couple of weeks will have been deluged with images of the newest edition to our household – Granger.
We were broken-hearted earlier this year with the loss of Miss Molly Super Spaniel, for such a small dog she left an enormous hole and the house felt different somehow. Colder. Quieter.
Much of The Sister was written on my lap, carving out a space anywhere I could find, but by the time it was published my eldest son had left home and I bought a desk for his former bedroom. Molly kept me company each day as I wrote The Gift and The Surrogate while the kids were at school and my husband was at work. She’d listen as we ate lunch together and I talked over plot holes and character development with a sense she understood every word.
Making the decision to bring another dog into the household wasn’t one we took lightly and we saw 6 litters before we met Granger and fell in love.
Ridiculously it’s been so long since we had a puppy in the house I kind of thought I’d fall back into the old routine I had with Molly with Granger while I write book 4. Ha. Granger doesn’t just lay on my feet as Molly did, he chews them, along with my computer cables, and my chair, and my desk….
It’s a bit like having a baby I think. You blank out the hard bits once it gets easier and then you do it all again. I’d forgotten the crying at night, the getting up to let him in the garden at 3 am, the chewed shoes, the puddles on the floor.
Despite my exhaustion and inability to write for more than 10 minutes at a time without being distracted, he’s made the house feel like a home once more and I wouldn’t swap him for the world, even if book four might take a little longer than I’d envisaged to write.
That’s how long I’ve been doing the primary school run for.
Nineteen years ago my eldest son was in his first year of ‘little’ school and now my youngest son is finishing his final year. A full circle.
Nineteen years of spelling test practice, egg and spoon races, school discos, times tables pinned to the fridge, Christmas concerts with homemade costumes. Nineteen years of knowing all the kids in the school, calling the teachers by their first names, school trips, fun facts and endless questions about stuff they’ve learned over dinner. (Yesterday Finley watched a birth video and that was enough to put everyone off their lasagne).
It’s been an emotional week for me. The end of an era. Primary has been part of my life for almost half of my life and I’ve been building up to today’s leaving assembly with a mixture of denial and apprehension thinking ‘what now?’ My children are growing up, forging their place in the world and admittedly I’ve worried whether that place will still have room for me.
I’ve watched Finley’s two brothers transition into adulthood with a sense of amazement and awe. Knowing I’ve raised such well-rounded young men is a constant source of pride and wonder and I know it’s Finley’s time to gain some independence. Dip his toe into the world. It’s been hard not to feel anxious about him making this leap to ‘big’ school, unfairly assuming he must feel the same sense of creeping dread I do.
Today, I sat in the school hall that always smells of rubber and disinfectant for the last time. Cramped on one of the uncomfortable orange plastic chairs which are too big for kids and too small for adults, trying desperately to keep my emotions inside.
The children were called to the front one by one and presented with a book. Behind them a screen showed their image with two speech bubbles, one saying what they wanted to be when they grow up; the other saying who has most inspired them in the world. Finley’s photo flashed up and I leaned forward, straining to read the words that had come from his heart. “When I grow up I want to be an author of fictional stories.” The walls of my throat constricted as I swallowed hard. The next speech bubble stated “I am most inspired by my mum who is a brilliant bestselling author.” And this was my undoing. Tears streamed unchecked down my cheeks as I fumbled for tissues in my bag.
With a rush of relief I realised that Finley is excited for the future and it was only then I could look at today as a beginning rather than an end. Secure in the knowledge that whatever the next stage brings we will face it, as we always do. As a family. With love.
Image courtesy of Shaktiki Sharma
‘Dan said ‘I’m going to give Stella the sack.’ Hilda relayed.
Stella’s throat burned hot. How could he? Today? It’s 30 years since she started here. Not that anyone remembered. She’d helped his wife arrange a birthday party for him too.
Stella fired off an email telling her boss everyone called him fish breath behind his back. She pressed send and gathered her belongings and her dignity, and stood.
‘Not going anywhere, Stella?’ Dan carried in a cake. Thirty candles flickering. ‘I said this morning I’m going to get you back for the party and surprise you!’
‘Sorry,’ mouthed Hilda. ‘Misheard.’
This week my sister asked for a more lighthearted story and as it’s International Women’s Day and she’s the strongest woman I know I had to step outside my comfort zone and give it a go.
Big thanks to everyone who has read, reviewed and recommended The Sister. Yesterday my publisher rang to congratulate me on half a million sales. You can read the first thought that popped into my head here. World Book Day was another step outside my comfort zone. An introverted writer giving a talk to 250 kids. What could possibly go wrong? I blogged about that here.
‘Act in haste’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 word story challenge inspired by a photo prompt and organised by Rochelle.
Last week I was writing when my phone flashed with an incoming call – my son’s primary school – and my heart stuttered as I thought of all the things that might be wrong.
‘Will you come into school on World Book Day and talk to the kids about writing? Just Years 5 & 6. Only around 250 children.’
Only?!? 250!?! I’ve never given a talk before and instantly I felt sick, dizzy, afraid. Options pin-balled around my mind. I could hang up, pretend they had the wrong number, put on an accent and say I can’t speak English. So many words formed on my tongue, but I thought about the amazing assemblies I’ve seen there over the years. How brave the children are to stand up in front of the school and act and sing, and of all of the words that formed on my tongue, the one that came out was yes. The children can’t all enjoy performing and yet they do it anyway. What sort of example would I set to my son if I didn’t at least try?
Yesterday, it was a different story. Riddled with doubt I spoke my lovely friend Victoria who told me to imagine I was speaking to one little girl. The little girl who loved to read. Loved to write. Who wanted nothing more than to be an author. The little girl I once was who had her dreams crushed when the career advisor said writing was neither a ‘proper or viable career choice.’ And a quiet determination grew inside. If in some small way I could inspire one child to follow their dreams it would be worth any amount of anxiety I might feel.
This morning I stood in front of a sea of expectant faces. I locked eyes with my son. He’d been so excited I was visiting and I wanted to make him proud, not faint/vomit/cry and so I ignored the notes I’d made and I spoke from the heart. I spoke of my passion for writing, my love for my characters, how I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. I spoke of my belief that we can all be who we want to be, if only we dare to dream and never stop trying.
I asked the children questions. They asked me questions. Some had written them down, complete with illustrations. Most loved to read, to write, to fabricate stories and many of them dream of being authors and seeing that raw hope, that ambition, that certainty, I am sure they can do anything they set their minds to.
It was a real privilege meeting these children and I came away hopeful, and inspired, and itching to write. It was such an enriching experience. I learned a lot about them, but I also learned a lot about me.