Spoilers

I love spoilers. With an embarrassingly large amount of my heart.

Maybe (probably) I’m some sort of deranged control freak who can’t handle surprises. Maybe I’m sabotaging a good, much needed workout for my little grey cells. Maybe I don’t have any little grey cells.

All I know is that spoilers – for books, films, tv dramas (and can somebody give me a few for real life, pretty please, I beg of you) – make me happy but seem to make other people sad, annoyed, and/or makes them stick their fingers in their ears whilst singing desperate lalala songs.

I can only marvel at the self control spoiler-haters have.

Because I have none.

Or, at least, that’s what I’d always thought.

*

Rewind to last Saturday.

4am saw me attempting to pack a backpack, drink a cup of tea, eat toast, and put on makeup all at the same time. The first three activities went relatively well, but the fourth really, really did not – as became apparent when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the afternoon (to be fair, there was never going to be much hope for my face with a 4am start to the day). 4.45am saw me driving painfully slowly through thick, soupy fog to Bournemouth station, praying not only for x-ray vision but that I’d actually make it to the station before the coach left. 5.15am saw me out of breath but tucked up successfully on a seat. 8am saw me blinking up, dazed and confused, into the bright blue sky outside Victoria coach station in London.

9.50am saw me on sunwashed steps outside the Faber Academy, legs a little shaky, heart a little fast.

I was there for their ‘Start To Write’ course and although I’ve been chipping away at writing a novel for years and years and yet more (painful) years, I had never written in a very structured way, in an educational setting, or with other people before. Hence the shaky legs and achy heart.

I felt very scruffy and under prepared – just my default setting for all of life really.

For the course, everyone in the group had brought along a copy of their favourite novel (I’d taken The Hobbit). The lady next to me had brought a copy of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey and from the moment she started describing the story I was fascinated.

‘Marion Sharpe and her mother seem an unlikely duo to be found on the wrong side of the law. Quiet and ordinary, they have led a peaceful and unremarkable life at their country home, The Franchise. Unremarkable, that is, until the police turn up on their doorstep with a demure young woman. Not only does Betty Kane accuse them of kidnap and abuse, she can back up her claim with a detailed description of the attic room in which she was kept, right down to the crack in its round window. But there’s something about Betty Kane’s story that doesn’t quite add up.’

Cue a round of oohs and aahs from my brain.

After the course, I strolled in golden sunshine to Covent Garden for a mooch around the shops. Of course, I ended up in a bookshop. Of course, I found and bought a copy of The Franchise Affair.

Poppy the cat and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey.
Poppy wanted to read it too

And then I broke a habit of a life time.

I didn’t research the book. I didn’t go on a plot synopsis search like some sort of spoiler possessed hunter tracking its story prey. I didn’t skip to the last few pages. I just opened the book and went in blind.

And it was fine.

Infuriating – oh so infuriating; three days of pain, of little angry roars from the bottom of my lungs, of opened then closed Google tabs – but totally fine. Totally. (I could have cried.)

Although the conclusion of the story was 99% certain from the outset, the hows and whys and nitty gritty details were enjoyable to see unfold throughout the book rather than in the paragraphs of its wikipedia page. Who even knew?

I’m not a born again spoiler-free convert, but I think I might just be able to restrain myself for one or two more books in the weeks ahead. Just one or two.

Maybe.

So if anybody needs me over the next few days, I’ll be the one in the corner practising my lalala song.

Memory Books

It’s funny how some things bring back very specific memories.

I get it, maybe weirdly, with shampoo. If I go back to using a shampoo after months/years (basically, whenever discounts and empty bottles align) the smell on the first couple of washes will always send a flood of memories rushing through my head from around the time I was using it before.

It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to time travel – which is kinda disappointing, but you have to work with what you’ve got I guess.

I got this whole memory-time-travel thing again the other day, except this time it was triggered by a book cover. I didn’t travel back in time very far – ahem, March – but in the middle of the longest heatwave of my lifetime it does feel a little like another world away.

And there were a couple of others that brought back some unusually clear memories.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton book cover.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton – the book that started it all. The cover took me straight back to the “beast from the East” at the beginning of March. Two days curled up in front of the woodburner, cocooned in giant woolly jumpers, the world outside made quiet with thick snow and freezing rain. The book was brilliant but claustrophobic by the end, just like the weather.

Old boots in ice and snow. The beast from the East, March 2018.
Cold toes in old boots.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry – my first driving lesson, May 2017. Sat in the garden, sunshine falling on my back, and waves of scaredy-cat butterflies blooming in my belly. Focussing on this book basically stopped me from ringing my instructor to call the whole me + driving thing off. And it’s a good thing I didn’t ring to cancel, because it turns out that driving is actually quite useful. Who even knew?

The Essex Serpent book cover
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien – 2003 Easter holidays, Spain. Aged 10, lounging on the tiles of a balcony on a blue-grey Mediterranean day, the sound of the sea lulling in the background. I was a bit unsure what was going on plot-wise but pretty darn sure I would at least finish the book before the final film came out at Christmas. I decided afterwards it was best to wait a few years before attempting The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. (Now I want to read them all over again.)

TROTKbook
The return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Most books bring back hazy memories from around the time I read them, but these ones just seemed to bring back strangely strong ones. Maybe ones that don’t trigger anything now will in the future? Brains are definitely weird and full of surprises.

Is it just me, or do you get memories popping out of your head like a bright lightbulb moment with some books too? I’d love to know what they are if you do.

❀

Take Me Home

“Jacob?”

He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.

“You can’t stay here forever.”

Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.

He could stay. He had to.

The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.

“You look tired.” she said.

Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.

“I can’t sleep.” he said.

“Not out here.”

“I can’t go home.”

The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”

He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.

She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”

He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.

“We don’t need to go far.”

They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.

“Fine.”

Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.

The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.

But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.

The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.

“This is my favourite place.” she said.

Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.

“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”

He frowned. What days had she seen him before?

“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.

Her hair was wet.

How had that happened?

She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.

The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.

“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”

The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.

Jacob shook his head.

“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”

He shook his head again.

“Oh go on, Jacob.”

“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.

The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.

“I just want Lora.” he said.

“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.

The woman’s face was bleeding.

A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.

“Is something wrong?”

“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”

“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”

He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?

“I promise.”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”

She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.

The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.

I won’t be long.

The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.

He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.

I won’t be long.

The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.

Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.

“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”

The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.

Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.

“Please.”

He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.

“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.

“Take me home.”

Footprints in the sand at Lyme Regis, Dorset.

>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<

Morning Rain

The sound of rain outisde my window early this morning made me happy.

The drips and drops and thousand tiny splashes humming on paving slabs and freshly unfurled leaves made me want to run outside and stay there until my skin became only a half-skin, the rest of it made up of water and sky.

Once I’d got up, once I’d made a cup of tea, once I’d cuddled one cat, two cats, three cats, I stood at the doorway in my pyjamas and listened to the garden echo with rain and birdsong. My toes got wet as they gripped the doorstep. My lungs got clean as they filtered soggy air. My heart got heavy as it realised I wasn’t brave enough to step out into this soaking, squelchy, drowning world because my head had decided it was a silly thing to do.

It was silly. Totally silly. Silly through and through.

It’s natural to want to bask in sunshine, but to want to bask in rain?

Not. Sensible.

That, though, had been the point.

I’ve spent the rest of the day trying to make up for my lack of bravery, but being kitted out with boots and a raincoat kind of takes the magic away.

So tomorrow, I hope it’s raining when I wake up.

If it is, you’ll find me in the garden in my pj’s, clutching a cup of overflowing-diluted-rainy tea, being completely and utterly ridiculous.

Come join me!

What I’m Reading – The Bear and the Nightingale

The weather for the last week here has been beautiful – sunny and warm, the air filled with bumbling bees and dancing butterflies, the ground bubbling with bluebells. When it has rained, it’s been a gentle rain of blossom trickling to the earth.

And every chance I could snatch throughout the week I was outside in the garden clutching my copy of The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden, being transported to the wilds of northen Russia.

The Bear and the Nightingale book review. Book cover. Folklore, fantasy, fairytale.

The story follows Vasya as she tries to keep her community safe from forces they themselves have awakened after they abandon the old folktales and instead rely on the fearmongering of an ambitious, beguiling priest.

The story brims with creatures and magic – it had me keeping an eye out for Domovoi in the kitchen just how The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe had me checking the back of my wardrobe (plus pretty much any cupboard in the house, just to be sure) for another world.

I absolutely loved it. It’s enchanting, beautifully written, and the creatures and characters – especially Vasya – come alive on the page.

I didn’t really want it to end, so I’m very happy to hear that it’s the first book of a series.

Happy reading and happy Easter!

❀

What I’m Reading – The Faerie Thorn

The Faerie Thorn by Jane Talbot is a collection of seven short stories inspired by folklore, fairytales and magick. They’re deliciously dark and gruesome – full of faeries, trolls, mermen and maids, shapeshifters, spells, dastardly deeds, bittersweet bargains, nightmarish consequences, and satisfying comeuppances.

I’ve found the stories both enchanting and unsettling. Their short length gives them an addictive energy that’s made a refreshing change – kind of apt at the beginning of springtime – after struggling my way through Dracula.

The style of writing is unlike anything I’ve read before – it has a lyrical, slightly poetic feel to it which I really enjoyed. In my head I felt like I was listening to the stories being told around a flickering fire, sat right forward, barely blinking, hanging on every word.

Captivated.

It’s definitely worth reading. And if you’re anything like me, you won’t want to put it down!

Book review of The Faerie Thorn by Jane Talbot.

ghost trains

I used to know a train was coming.

I could hear it wailing in the distance, its metal wheels clickety-clacking closer and closer. I knew that soon the whole world would be roaring with a whoosh of steam and a shriek of sparks.

The earth would rumble and my bones would shake and a train would definitely come.

But when I told my mum she’d laugh gently and carry on picking the blackberries growing by the path.

No trains, Pippin. Not any more.

And I would look at the mangled metal at my feet and know that she was wrong. I could feel it. Somewhere in front of us, somewhere close, a train was coming.

*

Now. Now it’s different.

I look at the rusted, twisted tracks at my feet and I can’t feel the train. I don’t hear it screaming and I don’t feel the ground trembling. My stomach doesn’t sink and fall and churn, my heart doesn’t pound.

The air stays quiet. No sparks. No steam. No wailing.

Now I only see old tracks that poke up out of the earth, threatening to trip me up if I’m not careful.

I don’t know a train is coming any more.

But then.

Maybe now is when it will.