Christmas is going to be different in 2020 but as a 2nd wave of coronavirus recedes and we enter a new tier system, one of the first things you notice is how much earlier people have been putting up their decorations. It’s been a horrible year for so many and for those who believe the pandemic was a huge Government conspiracy, take time to consider the 60,000 unnecessary deaths that occurred in the UK alone and what it feels like for millions of mourners across the globe who lost loved ones. So whatever we can do to inject a little cheer and love into this world, we should embrace it.
With a vaccine around the corner, finally there is hope. This must come as a great comfort to those who are shielding, such as the elderly but with Christmas around the corner we need to be there for each other like never before.
For the past two months I have been editing my book like crazy and love how it’s all coming together. I struggled with the first half for over a year but during the first lockdown, it finally began to take shape. I am days from finishing it now, and about to write the epilogue, before handing it over to an editor.
But in my last post, I also pledged to include a tribute to Graham Lovell, a local resident whose stories gave me much inspiration. I am pleased to say last weekend I wrote that tribute, a process that evoked heartache, more so when I saw Dan’s tribute on YouTube, snapshots of a friendship which lasted 23 years. It is a beautiful film and very moving, it captures the person Graham was, so I hope he won’t mind me sharing it.
With the impact the pandemic has had on mental health, it seems ever more important to recognise it. It can strike at any time, sometimes with devastating consequences. Anxiety, depression, insomnia, paranoia and panic attacks are things I have known in my own life and I feel blessed to have conquered them, through mindful practices such as positive thinking, keeping busy, creative hobbies (especially writing) and have the support of my loving husband and family.
There are people in our world who carry terrible sadness inside, but it is not always obvious until it is too late; a reason to keep in touch with each other, especially in these strange times. We might not be able to meet face to face, but we can still call each other, network on social media, Face time or zoom. Yes, it feels a bit weird and there was a time when I couldn’t imagine life would ever get back to normal, but at least there is hope. I would like think we will come out of this a more compassionate species and that somewhere, at the end of a very dark tunnel, a glimmer of light shines at the end.
Stories that tackle mental health issues
To end the year, I’d like to include some favourite books and as an avid reader have ploughed through some excellent novels but I especially want to concentrate on those that tackle mental health issues.
The Faerie Tree by Jane Cable Deals with family bereavement, self-blame, depression and guilt.
Beast by Matt Wesolvski Deals with the exploitation of vulnerable people with complex metal health issues
Spare Room by Dreda Say Mitchell Tenant Lisa finds a hidden suicide note. The story is who wrote it and why?
I Found You by Lisa Jewell A man is discovered sat on a remote beach in a fugue state. Deals with trauma.
The Secret by KL Slater A story of how the burden of adult conflict and secrets can affect a child.
HAVE A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS. SEE YOU IN 2021 WHERE HOPEFULLY I WILL BE PUBLISHING NEWS OF MY FIRST PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER.
Publication Day is getting close for noir suspense saga, ‘Rosebrook Chronicles, the Hidden Stories’ with a FREE short story to download.
Rosebrook Chronicles is a series of interlocking stories which fuse into a compelling saga. People inspire me and while my favourite genres are thrillers and suspense, I like stories that delve deep into the human psyche.
Abused as teenagers, three young adults strive to repair their broken lives; Robin has ambitions to rise to power, while orphaned siblings, Beatrice and Peter, yearn to find one another.
Deeper stories of these characters drive the plot, intended to keep the reader emotionally hooked. What lies at the heart of Robin’s political power play? Why are Peter and Beatrice kept apart for so long and is there something more sinister behind their segregation?
A dark suspenseful drama from the 70s to the 90s, this is a unique blend of social history and domestic noir.
New Edits thanks to my Beta Readers
This book has passed under the eagle eye of four beta readers, successful, talented authors in their own right. I would like to convey my thanks to Ray Green, Joel Hames, Rose Edmunds and last but by not least, best selling historic fiction author Beryl Kingston, for taking the time to read my book.
Completing some extensive edits (to address points raised my beta readers), I was pondering over the launch date. I approached a few literary agents, since Rosebrook Chronicles was quite different from my previous work. Writing this book, I found a distinctive voice for each character and endeavoured to explore the deeper issues of child abuse, the impact on victims and the way it shapes people’s lives.
It’s been interesting but I know what it feels like to be suppressed by controlling people, the power of lies and of not being believed.
This leads me to mention the books I enjoy reading, all psychological thrillers.
This is one of the most original stories I have read. This book certainly opened my eyes; a story of gossip with terrible consequences, how one rumour can unleash suspicion and any one of your friends could be a killer. An absorbing book with a heart-stopping twist.
This is the first book I’ve read by Dreda Say Mitchell but Oh Boy what a good read! The secrets of the past are drip fed through the plot. Why is Lisa so drawn to this house? Who is the mystery man who left the suicide note and could her life too be under threat? Brilliant.
A crime thriller packed with psychological suspense, where you start to question who the victim really is. Amy is forced to confront her past, to get into the head of a sinister kidnapper. What ensues is a gripping game of cat and mouse, a race against time to save the victims.
I am currently reading this and utterly hooked. It is not just the beautiful descriptions of the Lake district I am enjoying but the pure unadulterated suspense. I am dying to know what is causing Leona’s panic attacks, a phenomenon I can relate to. A real page turner.
To conclude, there are some bloody good psychological thrillers out there at the moment. But aspiring to their standard is something I dream of!
FREE SHORT STORY
So let others be the judge with a FREE story to download and read at your leisure.
Chapter 14: The Bracelet can be downloaded either as a PDF or mobi file… and if you enjoyed this short story and want to read more about the lives of Bibi and her daughter, my book can be pre-ordered from Amazon.
Please note: the mobi file cannot be delivered wirelessly to your Kindle as with Amazon. You need to email the file to your device (the address can be found in your Amazon account under devices) or use the Kindle app on your computer.
I don’t do enough blogging, the main reason being that unless I have a guest blog, I only publish when I have something worth writing about…
Well it is time to take the plunge; ever since completing ‘Same Face Different Place’ I have started something new at last!
I had an idea lingering on the back burner, ever since we visited Yorkshire in 2016, the notion of writing shorter stories, based on some of the lesser known characters of the series. These are the hidden stories, tales from childhood that were always simmering in the background but never actually made it into the pages of SFDP.
For example, references were made to some darker aspects of child abuse; but they would have detracted from the main plot. Two characters will be familiar to readers of the series. But there is a character I am introducing for the first time, one who hardly featured in the latter books. Bessie Summerville is Peter’s little sister, someone he spent a lifetime searching for, so I thought it was time to tell her story.
It is also worth mentioning that writing though Peter’s eyes encouraged to dig a little deeper into his story and the era when he worked at Toynbee Hall.
I confess to having only known a little about the organisation. But I would love to speak to anyone who remembers it from the 197os. Luckily a member of staff pointed me in the right direction, an enquiry that brought me to the Metropolitan Archives in North London. Studying the original annual reports from 1972 – 1979 gave me a snapshot of the structure of Toynbee Hall, as well as their good work. I will say that this worthwhile research painted an entire backdrop of one of my new stories. Furthermore, I have a request to deposit a copy of my writing in the library at Toynbee Hall once completed.
To conclude, the book is well underway now with ten stories drafted and possibly another five to reach a conclusion. In my next post, I hope to bring you a synopsis and finally a cover reveal as hinted in the stock images shown…
2016 kicked off with the first highlight of my writing career. I was picked as a winner fora local short story competition “Write Across Sussex.”
It was a wonderful moment and something I never expected. I’ve never entered a short story competition before, in fact short stories are not really my forté. My writing has been centred around producing full-sized novels which is one of the reasons I was so thunderstruck! A short story needs to be very focussed. You have to capture the essence of the story, the atmosphere and characters in very few words. Dreaming up an idea for a story is the first hurdle, be it a childhood memory or a dream, an item on the news or maybe a funny story you heard down the pub. I thought about some of the things my mum told me about her childhood, where one story stood out in particular. As a consequence, my story is based on a real event that happened in World War II:
By Helen Christmas
East Sussex 1940
“You should think about it seriously, Connie. She isn’t safe here!”
Six-year-old Dottie stopped colouring, pencil suspended in mid-air, the moment her ears pricked up to the sound of a raised voice drifting beyond the kitchen.
“Shh!” her mother reprimanded. It was only their neighbour Clara, and by the time the conversation was resumed, the voices had dropped back down to a flurry of whispers.
Dottie wasn’t sure what it was about the sentence that unnerved her. She allowed her gaze to wander around the living room, drinking in the atmosphere: her dad’s high-backed chair smothered in dark green upholstery, the subtle fragrance of his Woodbines. She knew his health was frail. He seemed to spend a lot of time in bed when he wasn’t pottering around in the garden, tending to the vegetables and chickens only to stagger back indoors almost breathless.
She could still see the newspaper resting on the arm of his chair. She sighed, confused as to what was really happening. BRITAIN & FRANCE MOBILISE screamed the headline; it was something to do with the war.
Once again, she pictured the tidy rows of vegetables in their garden and the fruit bushes. Everyone grew their own food. They had a glasshouse too, where Daddy grew strawberries the size of apples; there was always a slightly musty aroma in the kitchen from whatever fruit happened to be fermenting in an old bucket to be turned into wine. Her face buckled into a frown as she listened to the low murmurs emanating from the kitchen. Just the tone of voice suggested something ominous. It reminded her of those radio broadcasts – dark and sepulchral, the ever-rising threat of danger, which always seemed to drain the smile from her mother’s face. Most of all Dottie dreaded hearing the siren – a prolonged and undulating wail, rising and falling, scattering the residents, the sound echoing in her head long after it had ended.
Connie pursed her lips, concentrating on her knitting. The rhythmic click of needles was soothing compared to Clara’s constant harping. Yes, of course she had thought about having Dottie evacuated. On the one hand, Clara was right; the child might be a lot safer. Coastal towns were frequently being bombed as the Germans dropped their load prior to returning home across the Channel. Even the cumbersome lump of steel in their bedroom that served as an air-raid shelter bore testimony to the ever-present threat of war looming over their heads.
“I think the Children’s Overseas Reception Board is a wonderful idea,” Clara gushed.
“I see,” Connie sighed, “and you say they’ll be sailing out on a steamship?”
“It’s one less thing for you to worry about, dear,” Clara added with a faint smile. “To a lot of these kids, it feels a little bit like a holiday. I saw some evacuees going off on a train yesterday – you only had to look at their faces.”
“But Canada…” Connie whispered to herself.
How could she bear it? Especially when William was so unwell? Doctors had said it was a ‘miracle’ he had even survived the onslaught of tuberculosis. He might not live long and Dottie was an only child.
By the time the sun sank behind the apple trees, she was still thinking about that conversation, watching as the light began to fade and the long shadows came stalking across the vegetable patch. The air had turned a little icy, the soft clucking of chickens indicating that they too were snuggling down for the night. It was nothing compared to the chill that fluttered over Connie’s shoulders – she stared up into the sky and shivered.
Dottie found herself being shepherded into school, where the usual lines of children snaked across the yard before separating and trailing into their respective classrooms.
Whatever Mummy and her neighbour had been talking about, she hadn’t said much. Her face had been a little pinched when she stepped into the lounge from the garden, wiping her hands on her apron. The light from a table lamp emitted a golden glow where it cloaked the walls. It threw soft shadows over Daddy’s face as he sat dozing in his chair, and for the rest of the evening, there had been an unsettling silence. She could still hear the click click of her knitting needles, all conversation suspended – she pictured the lemon yellow wool she had spotted, hoping it would be for a new cardigan.
Yet all thoughts of her gentle home life were shooed from her mind the moment the headmaster materialised. He strutted into the corridor, head high, eyes glittering as they feasted on the encroaching line of children as if they were some sort of insects. Dottie shivered, forcing her head down between her shoulders, trying to make herself as invisible as possible. Was it only last week he had clipped her round the ear for no good reason? She had been fidgeting in her chair, that was all. The flash of a hand came from nowhere and she saw stars. She felt the well of tears behind her eyes before she could stop them, her lip trembling.
“Dottie, do get a move on. You’re dithering, dear.” The voice of her classroom teacher oozed from behind her.
She flinched for a second time, squeezing out a smile. “Sorry, Miss Porter.”
The classroom fizzed with activity as her classmates clutched the wooden boxes they were issued with. Fingers poked at the clasps and straps – gas masks, they were told. Before she even knew what was happening, the teacher was speaking again, urging them to try them on – this is a drill, if the bombs come down and the Germans invade… Dottie stared at the little boy in front of her. The mask had a long tube jutting out at the front that made him look like an elephant! Some of them even looked like Mickey Mouse! Titters and giggles escaped from every corner but did nothing to lighten her mood. It wasn’t funny, it was scary.
The next thing she knew, she could hear that haunting sound – the air-raid warning. The teacher told them it was a recording, but it made no difference. Dottie felt the shroud of goose pimples crawling all over her arms and down her back, never able to forget the effect it had on people. Her hands shook. She clutched the edge of her single wooden desk.
“Now get under your desks, all of you!” Miss Porter’s voice fired across the classroom. “Try to imagine this as a real air-raid warning!”
Dottie did as she was told and scuttled under her desk, her arms wrapped around her head as if to fend off some invisible attacker. But what if it ever was real? Would her little wooden desk be enough to protect her?
“It could save your life one day,” Miss Porter added. Her voice had a hollow ring to it that, even to a child of six, didn’t sound that sure.
“Mummy, are the Germans really coming here to attack us?” Dottie lisped.
Her mother’s face froze into an expression of shock. She lowered her knitting needles very slowly, then rose to her feet and clutched the top of Dottie’s arms. She moved her head a little closer so they were level and gazed deep into her eyes.
“My poor child, I have something to tell you,” she mumbled. “You must know how much Dad and I love you, so we’ve been thinking – did you know some kids have been sent away to live in the countryside?”
Dottie’s eyes grew wider. She nodded her head.
“It’s not safe living by the sea any more,” Connie added, her voice cracking slightly. “It’s the coastal areas that are being bombed, and yes – England is under attack. Some people are saying it would be safer if our children went abroad.”
“Abroad?” Dottie gasped. “You mean to another country?”
“Yes,” her mother sighed. “Another country – a big country called Canada. I’ve heard it’s very beautiful. It will be fun, Dottie, and far enough away to afford you a safe home.”
“Will it be forever?”
“Not forever,” Connie shot back at her, “only until the war’s over…”
“Is this what you and Mrs Hawthorne were talking about yesterday?” Dottie whispered.
Her mother’s eyes seemed to darken. They held her stare, two widely spaced pools of uncertainty and fear. A slight sheen of tears made them appear glassy, and for that moment, Dottie thought she was going to start crying.
“It was her idea. She too worries about your safety, Dottie, as do we all…”
Dottie found it hard to sleep, even though the exhaustion of the day dragged down heavily on her limbs, her mind and, most of all, her heart. Deep down, she knew what Mummy said was probably very sensible. She had barely stopped thinking about the drills at school, the air-raid sirens and the gas masks. They loomed in her mind like dreams, as if to remind her of the constant fear being bounced around the classroom.
She didn’t want to die.
At the same time, she didn’t want to be parted from her home.
Dottie clutched the bedclothes in terror and peered over the top of the counterpane. All she could think about was their lovely garden – of sitting under the blackcurrant bushes when the sun was hot – of Daddy scratching around with his hoe, humming to himself, occasionally interrupted by his chesty cough. She thought about the chickens, how much fun it was when she and Mummy had crept into their pen to collect the eggs. She clung to the memories of walks in the South Downs. Sometimes her uncle gave her a piggyback. There were cow pats as big as dustbin lids. She would grip his shoulders even tighter for fear he might drop her. Cowslips flourished in the grassy banks, the same pale yellow as her mother’s wool – Daddy picked great bunches of them to make wine.
The thought of sailing away on a great steamship known as the SS City of Benares surged darkly in her mind; about to tear her away from everything she loved. And it was in the silent darkness of her room, she eventually cried herself to sleep.
Connie admired her daughter next morning. She was dressed in a pleated skirt, socks pulled right up to her knees. She helped her button up her blouse and brushed her hair – it was blonde and very fine, cropped in a neat bob just above her jaw. Connie swept it back from her forehead and fastened it with ribbon, looping the ends into a big bow, where it fell to one side.
Her eyes were an unusual grey-blue. Yet it took one glance to see she had been crying.
“What’s the matter, dear?” she murmured.
“Please don’t send me away,” the little girl begged.
Connie swallowed, pained to look at her. “This is a wonderful opportunity for you, Dottie. Dad and I discussed this. The truth is, there is a war on, and neither of us want you to die.”
“So what about you?” Dottie whined. “Don’t make me go away, please! I want to be here with you, even if they do drop the bombs! I couldn’t stand it if you were killed… I’ll be all on my own.”
She started sobbing. Connie backed away, but it was as if she couldn’t let go – her small hands stretching out in front of her, clawing at her coat.
“It won’t be forever,” Connie said again. “We only want what’s best for you, sweetheart.”
“No!” Dottie squealed at her. “I don’t want to go! I won’t, I won’t, I won’t…”
Connie closed her eyes. Her palm fell upon her daughter’s silky head as her sobs became almost hysterical. The child was right – they were such a small family, and if she was true to her heart, she couldn’t bear to be parted from her either.
It was in that splinter of a second, she made her decision.
It was some three months later, they were alerted to the radio broadcast.
The date was September 17th, a day when the SS City of Benares had been torpedoed and sunk, carrying ninety child evacuees bound for Canada. Seventy-seven of them had perished.
It was the voyage her daughter had been destined for.
Connie wept, but not out of relief. She wept for the other mothers – those who had made the wrong decision, unable to imagine their agony, their children lost forever.
On January 23rd 2016, I attended a special award ceremony in Chichester along with the other winners and each of us was presented with an anthology of the winning short stories. It was a truly magical moment – and as if it wasn’t enough to have the privilege of meeting best selling authors, Kate Mosse and Peter Lovesey, (who judged the competition), I was awarded the compliment that my story was a firm favourite and beautifully written. I felt an unmistakable glow of pride – even better, the book is on Amazon.
It was definitely worth entering this competition. I feel truly blessed and hope this may inspire other budding writer to have a go.