Poppy’s Time chapter 1

Do you prefer this introductory chapter or the Cat’s Eyes one?

Poppys Time by Margaret Evans-Kaufeler

Chapter 1

I don’t want to visit Gran. I haven’t forgiven her yet.

‘But Poppy, tomorrow’s the 27th of July,’ Mum says between mouthfuls of Cornflakes.

‘So?’ I take a bite out of my marmaladed toast.

‘Don’t pretend you don’t know. Gran’s birthday. This time you have to come.’

‘But I promised I’d meet Sal.’

‘Gran’s not been well.’ Pause, but not for cereal this time.

My stomach tightens. ‘What’s wrong with her?’

Mum frowns. ‘Have lunch with us. You can see Sal afterwards.’

Gran’s house is greyer and smaller than I remember from three years ago.

The overgrown weeds clutch at our clothes as we walk up the path.

‘I cleared this only last week.’ Mum sighs. ‘How could it have got so out-of-hand already?’

The front door also looks neglected with its tarnished letter-box and peeling paint. Spiders’ webs lace their way across the entrance.

I cry out in surprise as Gran’s Persian cat Albert leaps onto my shoulder from his porch-roof hiding place. I drop the framed picture of flowers that I’d painted especially– Lobelias of course, after Gran’s name. Mum had nagged me to do it: ’You know how Gran appreciates your art work.

‘Crash!’ The sound of shattering glass echoes around the front garden.

‘Shi-!’ I start to say.

‘Poppy!’ Mum interrupts.

Albert shoots off to the front gate to hiss angrily at a tabby cat who eyes him briefly then struts away. My skin prickles. What’s got into Albert? His tawny fur’s puffed out on his arched back, and his normal, haughty expression’s turned threatening.

‘Poppy, are you going to give me a hand here?’


We crouch down and clear up the mess. I humph: that picture took me hours to do. Albert brushes past our legs.

Mum rings the doorbell.  ‘It’s only us,’ Mum calls through the letter box.

No reply.

‘Poppy’s here too. A real treat.’

Still no reply.

When no-one answers, she uses her key. ‘I hope there’s nothing wrong,’ she says,’ it’s the first time Gran hasn’t met me here.’

‘Maybe she’s just taking a nap,’ I say.

But Mum’s lips are pinched like when she and Dad used to argue about money.

I leave the parcel of bits by the door to sort out later and we walk into Gran’s living room. She’s in her favourite chair: the one like a throne with its intricate flower and animal carvings on the wooden arms and legs. You wouldn’t think it was comfortable, but when you sit down you sink into the soft seat cushion and feel safe.

This chair has been a pirate ship, a fiery steed, a magic carpet. With Gran around, those games were so real.

But is this shrunken figure really her? When she visited us at Christmas, she’d been the lively and eccentric Gran who used to child mind me after school. She’d even made me smile a couple of times, in spite of myself. Now her boniness reminds me of the bird skeleton Albert once proudly laid at my feet.

Mum’s been struck dumb.

My stomach churns again but my voice works: ‘Hi Gran.’ I bend down to kiss her cheek. Her skin is papery and her clothes smell stale.

I can hardly hear her reply.

‘Hello … Poppy.’ She catches hold of my hand with her cold fingers. ‘It’s so good to see you, Dear.’

Smiling, she gently pats the chair next to her. ‘Come and sit next to me. We’ve missed you. Tell me all your news.’

But as I settle and open my mouth to speak, her smile disappears. She looks around at Albert, the grandfather clock, then back at me. She frowns: ‘There are more important things to discuss. It shouldn’t be your time yet … but we need you.’

She drops my hand and gazes into the distance.

The ticking of the grandfather clock fills the room.

Even though Gran now turns to face Mum, her eyes don’t focus on her:  ‘Hello … Marion. Haven’t you brought Richard with you?’

Albert jumps onto her lap and distracts her so that she doesn’t see Mum and me exchange glances.

‘No. We’ve been divorced three years now. Remember?’

‘Oh … yes. You reminded me last time. I’m getting so forgetful, aren’t I Nick?’ She looks towards the grandfather clock in the corner as if expecting a reply. Mum and I turn automatically too, as if there’s some-one there. Of course there isn’t. Yet, I have a fleeting impression of a head over the clock face.

‘I’m missing something,’ Gran clasps and unclasps her hands repeatedly.         ‘… locked away in my brain … important. About you, Poppy. Albert told me so.’

Albert rubs his head against her hands, stopping their agitation.

‘Danger.’ She points towards the window and again reflex makes me look. The hedge has grown high and ragged. I can almost make out shapes of people staring in. Large, shadowy shapes.

She jabs her finger towards me: ‘You see them, don’t you Poppy?’

I lean back and shiver.

‘Please stop, you’re frightening her,’ Mum says to Gran, ‘and worrying me too. Have you been taking your medicine?’

When Gran doesn’t reply Mum addresses me instead. ‘Poppy, why don’t you go and make us a cup of tea? And heat up the casserole while you’re there?’ She hands me the carrier bag containing our lunch.

My voice shakes: ‘Okay.’

I’m grateful the kitchen seems so normal. I turn on the oven and slot in the stew, stick the birthday cake in the fridge. I fill the kettle, set out the tea things and sit down at the small breakfast table to wait. That kettle has always been a slow boiler.

I glance up at the clock. I like this one. The manufacturer’s name curls upwards like a banana to make a smiley mouth. But the time it shows – only midday – means at least another two hours before I can meet Sal.

Albert springs up onto the table and swishes his bushy tail, inviting me to stroke him. I’m glad of the distraction. It must be a trick of the light, but he seems to have fewer grey hairs in his tawny fur than last time. How old is he? In all my fourteen years, I can’t remember a time when he’s not been around. But I don’t remember him being a kitten and I haven’t seen any photos.

He looks at me and holds my gaze like he’s working out a difficult maths problem. Then he jumps off and heads to the back door, glancing over his shoulder as if asking me to follow, before passing through the cat flap.

The kettle is still only making quiet pops and whistles: several minutes before it builds up to its grand finale. I unlock the back door and step outside.

Although the back garden is overgrown too, the area is more peaceful than out front and I feel my shoulders relax. The scent of the honeysuckle at the back door washes over me. Gardening sounds: lawn mowing, hedge trimming, are everyday and reassuring. I can even hear the gardener next door whistling away while he digs. Why am I making such a big thing about Gran? After all, elderly people are often frail and forgetful.

Albert has found a warm spot on the patio, near the holly bush and fence. I take my mobile from my pocket and bend down to stroke him while I text Sal: hi. wt film r we –


I stop to see who’s speaking and stand up for a better view. The voice is unfamiliar but pleasant: smooth, rich and male. Is it the gardener next door?

‘I’m down here!’ It’s coming from near my feet. I look at Albert.

‘Yes, it’s me.’

This time I see his lips move.

I shriek. My phone slips through my fingers and topples in slow motion, into the holly bush. Whoa! Not only am I seeing and hearing things, but now I’ve lost my mobile.

Suddenly a head pops up over the fence like a Jack-in-a-Box and makes me jump and scream again.

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to shock you. Are you okay, Poppy?’ This time it’s the ‘Jack-in-a Box’ who’s speaking. I thought he was the gardener next door. But how come he knows my name? … Hang on, I recognise that lop-sided smile.

‘…Tom? I haven’t seen you since … ages.’ It’s been three years since Tom and me ended up going to different secondary schools. Three years since Gran didn’t need to child-mind me any more.

‘Yeah, it’s been a long time.’

He’s changed a lot. He must be half a metre taller than when we used to play together: making dens; creating obstacle courses; putting on shows for our long-suffering families. And he’s broader: his pecs fill his T-shirt well.

I swear Albert sniffs disapprovingly.

‘And how are you, Al?’

Albert raises his nose and turns his back at this casual use of his name.

‘I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for spraying him with the garden hose, ‘Tom says, ‘even though it was an accident.’

We both laugh. Albert’s indignant expression at changing from a fluffy cat to a soggy rat had been priceless.

‘So … why the scream?’

‘Come off it, Tom. It was you messing about wasn’t it?’

‘Doing what?’ I could always tell when he was lying. He clearly doesn’t understand what I’m on about.

‘You mean it wasn’t you who…’

‘… who did what? Are you sure you’re okay?’

‘Yes, I’m fine. I thought I saw …’ What now? I can’t say: “ my gran’s cat speak”.

‘I thought I saw… heard … a wasp.’ Now he thinks I’m a wimp. I have to change the subject.

‘But … er… my phone isn’t fine. I dropped it in that holly bush.’

‘No problem.’ Tom chucks over a spade. Then his garden-gloved hands grip the fence and he vaults over into Gran’s garden.

It doesn’t take him long: ‘There you go. One, rather scratched, phone.’

‘Thanks.’ I’d forgotten how helpful he was, how well we’d got on.

‘It’s a pleasure.’

A breeze ruffles his hair and he brushes his fringe out of his eyes.

We both smile.

Albert splutters and retches and coughs up a fur ball.

I feel my cheeks burn.

Seconds tick by like minutes before I manage: ‘So, how are things with you?’

‘Er, fine.’ He gestures towards the spade and waves his gloved hands. ‘Just earning some money gardening for Mum and Dad. Be handy for the holidays.’

‘I know what you mean. I babysit. Helps with trips and stuff.’

‘Mmm.’ He nods.

Another pause and he catches me staring at his muscled arms.

‘Do you still swim a lot?’ I think I’ve recovered the situation.

‘Yeah. I even made a national time for my 100m fly last month.’

‘So all that splashing about in the paddling pool when we were little was worth it then.’

‘I seem to remember you were the one doing the splashing.’ He chuckles.

I join in.

Albert scrambles up the fence, his claws scratching the wood in that grating way that makes you want to cover your ears. He struts along the top, mewing.

How come I imagined he spoke? He communicates so well without words.

Tom understands too: ‘I think he wants me to go home.’

But it’s not what I want. ‘‘Um …, fancy a drink?’

‘Sounds good.’ He stabs the spade into the soil and shoves his gardening gloves into his jeans’ pocket.

As Tom bends down to take off his muddy trainers, Albert leaps off the fence and races to the kitchen, hissing as he passes.

‘Just ignore him, he’s been odd since we arrived,’ I say.

As soon as we’re indoors I switch the kettle back on. ‘Tea, coffee, squash?’

‘Squash please. Er… can I use your loo?’

‘Sure. You know where it is.’

I open the biscuit tin – no home baking here. I’m disappointed. But it’s not surprising with Gran being the way she is at the moment. My heart sinks. I find myself hoping she gets better soon, even if I haven’t yet forgiven her for what she did to Mum and Dad.

I peer into the bottom of the container: there’s a few chocolate digestives.

Albert jumps onto the worktop.

‘Naughty,’ I say. ‘You know you’re not supposed to be on here.’

‘Never mind that,’ Albert replies. ‘Now I’ve finally got you on your own, you’ve got to listen.’

The tin slips through my fingers and clatters onto the floor. The biscuits tumble out, mostly landing on the chocolate side, of course. At least this time nothing breaks.

‘Well,’ Albert continues, ‘not a very good start to saving the World, is it?’

So – dear reader- do you prefer this first chapter or the one from Poppy’s Time in the previous post?

Cats Eyes  by Margaret Evans-Kaufeler

Chapter 1


‘Ow!’ I jump up as the hot tea soaks into my clothes.

Jess’s favourite mug is now a jigsaw puzzle of bone china smashed across the kitchen table… and over me.

For a fraction of a second me and Dad exchange looks. The pain I see in his eyes must be reflected in mine.

‘Sorry Kitty… I mean Cat.’ Dad stands up too. ‘Cold water-’

‘Yes, I know.’ I’m already at the sink, splashing myself. I start to slip off my jumper and shirt but realise that maybe at nearly sixteen I’m too old to be doing this in front of him.

So I run upstairs, grab fresh clothes from my room and dash to the bathroom.

A cool shower later, I return to the kitchen.

Dad’s studying his school paperwork again. At this angle the patch of thinning hair at the top of his head is obvious. At least the mess’s been cleared.

I throw my stained clothes into a bowl of water and add what’s left of the detergent, chucking the empty bottle into the bin with a clunk. It’s not the only thing we’ve run out of.


He doesn’t look up.

‘We have to go to Tesco.’ Mum would’ve realised.


‘We need 400 rolls of loo paper.’


‘And I’ve gone on the game coz of my drug habit.’


Mum would’ve listened. And Jess.

The alarm goes off on Dad’s mobile. At last he notices me. ‘Are you alright Kitty… Cat?’

He doesn’t wait for my reply. ‘Time to go. Get Sean, will you?’

I give him my do-I-have-to look, so he adds, ‘Please.’

But Sean beats me to it. He shuffles into the kitchen combing his fingers through his light brown hair – a young version of Dad. Totally different from the almost black hair I’ve inherited from Mum. A whiff of Lynx hits me.

‘Any toast left?’ he asks.

‘Yeah. But it’s cold.’

He takes it from the plate I hold out to him.

‘Thanks.’ He winks. ‘Well, I’m ready. How about you two?’

Sean calls shotgun, so he ends up in the front passenger seat. The car hasn’t got to the end of our road before he grumbles about the early start … again.

I switch off and sink into the back seat, alone. No Jess.

An autumn mist hangs gloomily over the school as I walk through the tarmacked area that a primary school would’ve called a playground. Sean abandons his ruck-sack to join in a quick game of football. I aim for the farthest bench.

Glancing across I see my ex, Nick, swerve around two players then neatly slot the ball between the two schoolbags acting as goal posts. He extends his arms and swoops like an aeroplane, catches sight of me, and waves. ‘Hey, Cat.’

I turn away, head down, and speed up my steps. I’ve nearly reached the bench when Leanne snarls in my ear

‘I thought I’d warned you about talking to Nick.’

‘I didn’t speak to him. And all he did was wave at me and say hi.’

Leanne muscles in on me as her mates snigger. I’m forced to take scuffling steps back until I’m pinned against the wall. My bag drops to the ground again. I make myself meet her stare, even though my stomach has sunk to my knees.

She grabs the front of my jacket and pulls me close until we’re almost nose to nose. I can see every stroke of her heavy eye-liner and mascara. ‘Listen here Miss Snobby Cat Johnson. Just coz you’re the Deputy’s daughter doesn’t mean you’re safe. You leave my boyfriend alone or else.’

One of her mates mutters a low warning. ‘Watch it, it’s Bunny!’

Leanne pretends to brush dust off my collar, then adds in a helpful voice ‘You’ll have to be more careful, Cat, tripping up like that.’

‘How kind of you Leanne,’ says Mr Warren, Head of Science, his tone suggesting he thinks she’s anything but. ‘Feel free to hand Cat’s bag back to her.’

I wipe my face on my sleeve. I know I’m safe at the moment. But from the spiteful glance Leanne throws me, it’s only a matter of time.

‘Off you go Cat, I’ll speak to you later,’ Bunny says. Turning to the others he adds, ‘But you ladies, and I use the term loosely, will discuss matters with me now, in my office.’

Head bowed, I walk as far away as I can and sit on the bench, blinking back tears. When I look up, I notice Jess has appeared.

‘About time you showed up,’ I say grumpily, though I’m relieved. Jess’ll help make sense of things. ‘What took you so long?’

‘Good morning to you too!’ Jess sits down and stretches herself out in a relaxed fashion, her familiar light-brown hair worn in a pony-tail today. I feel a slight pang in my gut as I remember all the times I used to style it.

‘You of all people,’ she adds, ‘should know I have no control over when I turn up. After all I’m just made up by your imagination.’

‘Any excuse.’

Jess laughs and hearing that joyful sound makes me miss her all the more.   ‘Anyway,’ I continue, ‘Connie says I shouldn’t be seeing you much longer.’

‘Ah, yes. Connie the Con Artist.’

‘That’s a bit unkind. It’s Connie the Counseller.’

‘But is the counselling helping you to get over my death?’

‘Not really.’

‘You’d think after six months there’d be some improvement. But Connie did say it’d be harder to get over losing a twin.’ Jess sits forward. ‘So, what’s up? You seem upset.’

‘Your mug. And Dad. And Nick. And Leanne.’

‘I’m sure it all makes sense to you, but the only bit I understood was Nick and Leanne. Fill me in.’

‘Well you should know since you’re in my mind.’

‘Humour me. Airing your thoughts will help.’ She sits back and crosses her hands behind her head in typical Jess listening pose.

So I explain.

‘Nick was a rat,’ Jess says. ‘He went off with Leanne just when you needed him most.’

‘But I did shut him out. And he seems really sorry.’

‘He might mean it now. But what happens next time he’s tempted? Stay away from him and Leanne. What you need is new friends

When I frown she adds, ‘Be helpful… smile a lot … join in more.’

I look down at my clasped hands. ‘But I’m not as good as you at that sort of thing. You always-’

I’m interrupted by the registration bell.

Jess responds first. ‘Just promise me you’ll try. See you later. Cheer up, Kitty Cat.’

So I make an effort to smile at everyone during registration, but all I get is blank faces from grumpy classmates. Not surprising, I suppose, on a dreary September morning with Maths first thing.

During that first lesson, I sit alone at a double table at the back near the window. Without the distraction of a chatty neighbour I complete all the set exercises quickly. I ease back into my chair and so as to avoid thinking about earlier, and Jess’s absence from the class I focus on my other class-mates. One girl shields her work so no-one can copy, a bleary-eyed boy dozes over his book, another girl along the row from me, her mobile under the table, busily texts. I sigh and switch my attention to the room. Large posters in overly bright colours shout that “Maths is Fun!” and show cartoon children with huge grins pointing at congruent triangles and parallelograms.

Whoa, what’s that? I glimpse movement out of the corner of my eye and whirl around towards the near corner.

This definitely isn’t normal. Items of rubbish are airborne, and skirt the rim of the waste bin. Snotty hankies pirouette silently around pencil sharpenings and dry pieces of chewing-gum stuck to broken biros. Since the action is below table height and no-one else is near me, they don’t notice the strange goings on.

I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head to clear it of this weird image. I hear Jess’s voice: ‘Come on Cat. Be like a pair of curtains … pull yourself together.’ So this strange bin activity isn’t due to her.

It’s not surprising I’m imagining things, I suppose, other than my twin Jess that is. Connie the Counsellor, warned this might happen after the trauma of Jess’s recent death. I wish Jess’d appear so I can check whether she can see it too. Though that wouldn’t prove anything.

Meditation might help. I breathe deeply, putting into practice Connie the Counsellor’s relaxation tips. I reopen my eyes, convinced that everything will be back to normal. How wrong can I be? The Aerial Acrobatic Waste Team is still in action.

And that’s not all. Through breathy mist I see a nose pressed against the window. It belongs to a pale face with intelligent blue eyes and framed by platinum blond hair. He lifts his hand and points something towards the bin. The rubbish shoots back to its rightful place. Stunned, I look back at him, but he’s already striding away towards the sports’ block changing rooms. Who is he? Can’t be from school, unless he’s a young-looking sixth-former, as he’s wearing jeans and a nerdy Scandinavian-style jumper, not uniform.

Should I tell someone? But who’d believe me? Nobody else has noticed. Maybe I’m hallucinating and if I speak up, they’ll make my life hell. What would Jess do? Definitely not wait till break by which time it’ll be too late to find him.

I put up my hand. ‘Please, Miss. I’ve finished my work. I’m not feeling well. Can I go to the toilet?’

Miss Morrissey’s dark, curly mop of hair bobs up from the front of the classroom where she’s helping Leanne. ‘Yes, alright Cat.’ It’s clear she thinks it’s genuine since I’m the one who’s asking. She rummages around her desk and hands me a pass. ‘Would you like someone to go with you?’

‘No thanks, Miss. I’ll be OK.’

I sprint towards the sports block. No sign of life. All the lessons must be outside on the playing fields. I open the first door which leads to the girls’ changing rooms. Nothing. Except… the sound of rushing water is coming from next door. I dash back into the corridor then turn towards the boys’ changing rooms. I hang back before opening the door and taking some hesitant steps. ‘Hello. Anybody there?’

It isn’t the awful smell of sweaty PE kit that makes me stop in my tracks. It’s the column of water, shooting upwards out of the end toilet cubicle, hitting the ceiling with an impressive roar.

Suddenly, like a fancy fountain being switched off, the water stops spouting. But the heavy splash back to earth is followed by what sounds like a curse in a language I don’t recognise. The toilet door opens to reveal a waterlogged version of the boy I saw earlier.

I smother a giggle at his disgusted expression. All of this has to be real. I can’t be imagining such a strange scenario.

‘Are you OK?’ I manage to sound sympathetic rather than amused. The boy looks puzzled and taps what looks like an earpiece for an iPod or hearing aid. I spot a gadget nestling in the palm of his hand.

My curiosity overcomes my shyness. ‘What’s going on?’

The boy shakes himself, clearing away excess water like a dog emerging from a river. He taps the earpiece again. ‘Ah!’ Something that wasn’t working is back in action again. Now he looks like he feels more in command, though I’m not sure that’s true. His clothes drip into the growing puddle at his feet. Is that really a reindeer design on the front of his jumper?

‘Greetings! I am thanking you for your concert…er…concern. But I am satisfied. I mean satisfactory.’ He frowns. Language matters aren’t going as well as expected.

‘You’re new, aren’t you?’ I ask. ‘What’s your name? Where are you from? Not from round here. Poland? Sweden? Norway?’

The boy holds up his hands with his palms facing outwards, as if shielding himself from my questions. As he does so, I can see the gadget he used on the bin.

I stare and he stuffs his hands behind his back shaking his head.

‘Look, tell me later,’ I say. ‘Let’s go to Lost Property and get you a towel and some dry uniform.’ Though a freshen up first might be a healthy idea.

He hesitates. ‘It is unnecessary. I can dry here.’ He enters one of the toilet cubicles and pushes the door to. A faint red glow emerges from under the door and I feel warmth at foot-level. But a buzzing noise is followed by a sharp crack! and a strong firework smell.

I take a few steps nearer. ‘Are you alright?’

The door creaks open revealing his sheepish face. ‘Perhaps I do need your aid, thanking you.’

After he’s had a quick wash we head towards the Lost Property cupboard and minutes later, we’ve found a decent towel, and most of the required clothing. Now we dig around for better trousers as the best pair so far is hopelessly short in the legs and would make him look like Tintin.

Suddenly, in response to voices in the corridor outside, he shoots up, nearly hitting his head on a shelf. He covers my mouth with his hand.

I listen carefully but can’t make out what’s being said. It’s like people speaking with marbles in their mouths. An exotic language like Hungarian or Outer Mongolian or something. The sound of voices fades, now speaking in English together with a third person. A local. Someone I know very well. I nudge the cupboard door open carefully and glimpse Dad deep in conversation with two tall, blond-haired men dressed in ill-fitting black suits and brown shoes. As they disappear around the corner, I wheel round and face the boy again. He looks worried.

‘Have you got any relatives visiting? Maybe uncles who really need a clothes make-over?’

‘No.’ Judging by his puzzled look, he doesn’t get my weak joke.

‘Nevermind,’ I continue, ‘I’ll turn my back while you get yourself into dry clothes. Then we’ll talk.’

Soon we’re sitting relatively comfortably on piles of clothing. The smell in this place might not be the freshest, but at least it’s warm and dry. And away from prying eyes. I raise my eyebrows in a silent question.

‘I am in danger from those men,’ he says.

‘What? Those men who look like your uncles?’

‘No, no! They are not members of my family. They are my enemies on my …. in my place.’

I raise my eyebrows again, this time in surprise, then try to help him with his English translation. ‘You mean your country?’

The boy looks at me keenly. ‘Well…’ The word hangs in the air.

‘So where are you from?’

‘You would not know the place.’

‘Try me. My geography’s pretty good. I always get quizzes about capital cities right… well, nearly always.’

‘It is a long, long way away.’

‘But…’ I try a different angle. ‘So who are those men?’

‘They are critical… no!’ He tuts in frustration …‘Criminals.’

‘What! Why are they here?’

‘They want to kill me.’

Writers’ idyll

Writers’ idyll

 What do you get if you place fifteen writers in a rural melting pot, simmer for 5 days with the occasional stir from a tutor and serve on a bed of literary aspiration? Answer, an Arvon creative writing course.

Totleigh Barton: The Devonshire Arvon site

Totleigh Barton: The Devonshire Arvon site

We earnest scribblers, or more appropriately key-tappers, from as far afield as Switzerland and the US, congregated at the remote idyll Totleigh Barton in the depths of Devonshire. Wifi/phone access required a significant uphill walk and frenetic mobile waving to obtain a signal. Any observers would think we resembled Star Trek crew members on a reconnaissance mission. But this didn’t faze (or phase?!) us as we focused our efforts on writing in our monastic-style rooms. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Initially apprehensive yet hopeful we gathered for the first evening’s activities. After formalities we jumped into the ice breaker: everyone had to state three facts about themselves, the twist being one statement had to be untrue. Aside from revealing the effective liars, it was an early indication of writing style: from terse action sequences to fairy tale weaving.

Our motley crew of fourteen women and one undaunted man was comprised of those with related careers such as literary festival organiser or children’s librarian, some members with writing MA experience, and some with simple enthusiasm. But the common thread was the desire to write Children/YA novels.

By the end of day 2 we’d all had a one-to-one with Gillian Cross or Marcus Sedgewick, both award winning authors. Later we sat entranced as they read extracts from their books and discussed their literary backgrounds.

Writers hard at work (not!) A good view of my back

Writers hard at work (not!) A good view of my back

On the third day, after much further pounding of the keyboard, and another mentoring session, it was my team’s turn to make the evening meal. We narrowly averted a disaster to a huge vat of chilli con carne when my ageing eyes initially read tablespoons of spice instead of teaspoons in the farmhouse kitchen’s gloom. The camaraderie of cooking, eating and much washing up (the dish washer was broken) was followed by our guest author Emma Carroll’s reading and talk.


A well-earned evening meal (I’m 3rd from the right, back row)

A well-earned evening meal (I’m 3rd from the right, back row)

It was fascinating to compare the three authors’ publication experiences: Long-standing writer Gillian Cross had approached a publisher directly, Marcus Sedgewick worked for a children’s publisher before finding an agent, Emma Carroll was ‘discovered’ when successful in her MA course. Although they acknowledged they couldn’t help with advice about conventional routes to agents, their input concerning our work was invaluable, rendered broader due to their different approaches: detailed critique versus overview.

After we’d spent the fourth day beavering away at our lap-tops, with the occasional sortie into the beautiful gardens and rural surroundings, we appreciated our evening down-time. Considering our target readership, it was unsurprising that our by now socially cohesive group reverted to childhood with party games. We giggled uncontrollably, not wholly due to the quantities of wine imbibed.

The final full day held the last tutor meeting and the first chance to hear excerpts of each other’s work. Some were more serious, topics ranging from a feral child to teenage love. But there was also the earthy humour so appreciated by school boys: a poem about farts followed by a piece about a pigeon squadron called the B-fifty-poo bombers.

The following morning we were subdued by our imminent departure but heartened by our learning experiences. We’ve exchanged email addresses so hope to keep all informed of event news, recommended books and, dare I say, publishing successes.

What did I take away from the course? Minor tips such as how to improve titles (don’t use personal names: passé), avoid comic book phrases, instead letting the verb do the work (‘She was startled’ rather than ‘Aargh’), and steering clear of brackets! More major adjustments concerned pacing, tightening the narrative by asking myself: what is the purpose of this chapter? and plot suggestions, for example considering the ending then working back from that.

The crunch point, sadly, is that my first book, Cat’s Eyes, where my teenage heroine overcomes the loss of her sister through helping a life-threatened alien, may have to be set aside as a mere learning exercise, and not become the début roaring success I hoped it would be!

But there’s promise in one of the alternative novels I’ve embarked upon. The general consensus was that Poppy’s adventures with sidekick Albert the eccentric talking cat could hit the publishing spot.

Perhaps I should leave you to decide. Feedback welcome.