Oh Gran! will be hitting Kindle soon. Here’s a taster and a peep at the great cover artwork by Roger Fereday.
Chapter 1 News Time
“Has anyone else got any news?” asked Mrs Crowley.
It was Friday afternoon, which was end-of-the-week news time at school. Teresa Barry had just told everyone how she’d passed her first Tae Kwondo exam the night before. She now had a yellow-tip belt. (Frank Feeney, sitting in the back row, decided he had better stop teasing her in the yard.)
“Surely someone has more news?” persisted Mrs Crowley.
No one put a hand up.
Mrs Crowley’s eye fell on Emily.
“Emily, have you got some news?”
Emily had, but she didn’t feel much like sharing it.
“Not really, Mrs Crowley,” muttered Emily, wishing her teacher had picked on someone else.
Mrs Crowley refused to be put off.
“There must be something you can tell us about, Emily. Now, come up here and share your news.”
Emily knew when she was beaten. She shuffled to the front of the classroom and turned to face the others.
“My news is that Gran is coming to look after me this weekend because Mum and Dad won a holiday in a competition so they’re going away.”
Emily shot back to her seat, her cheeks burning.
“Why, thank you, Emily,” smiled Mrs Crowley. ‘That’s nice news. I’m sure you’ll have a great time with your granny!”
Emily and her friends weren’t so sure. They talked about grannies at break time.
“Gosh, poor you,” said Mary Roberts. “Whenever my granny comes she makes us turn the telly down so low that we can’t hear it!”
“Yes, and my granny’s always telling me to wash my hands and brush my hair and stuff,” groaned Dermot Halloran.
“Has your granny stayed before?” asked Niamh Desmond.
“Not for ages and ages,” Emily answered. “You see, after Grandad died a few years ago, Gran went to live with my Auntie Hilary in Australia. Then just after Christmas she decided to come back to Ireland. We were going to go up to Galway to see her, but I got chickenpox so we I couldn’t. But now she’s coming down to look after me. She said she would pick me up from school today.!
Her friends pulled sympathetic faces. Grannies weren’t considered cool.
Chapter 2 Gran Arrives
Emily was quite nervous when the bell rang at the end of school. To be honest, she couldn’t exactly remember what Gran looked like! It must be more than three years since she’d seen her. Mum kept sending photos of Emily to Gran, but Gran never sent back any of herself.
“So how am I supposed to recognise her, then?” grumbled Emily.
She had a vague image in her head of someone small, smiley and rather wrinkly. But that was all.
She dawdled out of school, wanting to be one of the last out so that her friends wouldn’t see her with her granny. Plus it would be easier to work out who Gran was if the other parents and relatives had already gone home with their children. But Emily’s friends were curious about her granny. They dawdled out too so they could see what she looked like.
Glaring at them for being so nosy, Emily led a gaggle of her friends to the school gate. She looked across the road to where the remaining mums and dads were a waiting. She recognised all of them except for a motorcyclist wearing a black leather jacket. So where on earth was Gran? Emily was dismayed. Mum and Dad would be at the airport by now. Gran was meant to be here to pick her up.
Emily looked at all the faces again. Had she missed Gran somewhere? Unless, no, surely not! Emily watched in amazement as the motorcyclist pulled off a tiger-striped helmet and revealed the smiling face of an elderly lady. It was Gran!
Emily’s mouth dropped open in astonishment.
“Where’s your gran then?” hissed Niamh.
“l can’t see a walking stick anywhere!” joked Dermot, not very nicely.
“Yes, where is she?” asked Mary.
“There! She’s there!” croaked Emily, pointing to her leather-clad Gran.
Her friends fell silent in horror.
Oh Gran! thought Emily. I will never live this down.
Well, my second book is now up on Amazon in Kindle format. It’s Beat the Hackers, a work of juvenile fiction about hackers and computers with a strong female protagonist. Daughter Caiti designed me a brilliant cover:
And here is a sample from it to whet your appetites. It’s from near the end of the book. Heather and her father Ray are on the run from Domination, a mysterious company that created a universally popular, free anti-hacker software. However, it’s not quite what it seems, and Ray, with Heather’s help, is the only person who can prove it. They have just one possibly ally – Lucien Montgomery, head of Teuthras Communciations. They are meant to meet with him at midday:
Heather wandered over to the coffee bar. She chose four of the stickiest looking muffins they had and ordered two tall, double cappuccinos. She took the heavy tray to a corner table and waited for her father to join her.
They idly watched the passers-by as they ate and drank. Then gradually Heather became aware that they were being watched. She felt a prickling at the back of her neck. She casually glanced around. A few tables away, two people were sitting, apparently minding their own business. But they weren’t ordinary people. The man was tall and blonde and had deep blue eyes. He was immaculately turned out in some sort of designer suit. The woman with him was stunning. She had a beautiful figure and wore a fantastic tailored trouser suit. The perfect couple, thought Heather. Suddenly she stiffened. Perfect. That was it! She thought back to the photos of the perfect people her father had collected when he was researching Domination. Her blood ran cold. These people were too perfect. They were Domination perfect! And they were watching her and her dad.
She glanced away. This time her eye was caught by a tall, good looking man, pretending to window shop a short distance away. Beyond him was another perfect guy, trying to look inconspicuous in an Armani suit and browsing at postcards outside a newsagent’s.
Yes. Domination had definitely found them.
“Don’t look now, Dad,” said Heather quietly, trying to swallow her fear, “but there are some Domination people around. At the table behind us, and two more in the mall.”
Ray almost dropped his cup in alarm.
“What?” he hissed. He glanced around nonchalantly, checking out Heather’s claims. “That’s them, all right. We’re trapped!”
“Stay cool, Dad. Goodness knows how they tracked us down here. But never mind that now. We can run for it, I reckon.” Heather was beginning to make plans.
“We can try,” he said, but without much hope. “Look, I’ll slide you a set of USBs under the table. If we get separated, take these to show Montgomery on your own, OK? If you can’t, never mind. There’s still Marcus to back us up.”
“OK, Dad,” nodded Heather.
Ray discreetly fumbled in his bag and then pushed something under the table towards Heather with his foot. She carelessly leant down, on the pretext of adjusting her sock, picked up the USBs in their bag and slipped them into her jacket pocket.
“Fancy a refill?” she said loudly.
Ray looked at her puzzled for a moment. He was about to say he’d had enough caffeine for now, but Heather winked at him. “Get ready to run,” she hissed. “I’ll slow Mr and Mrs Perfect here down.”
“Thank you, more coffee would be lovely,” trumpeted Ray.
Heather walked up to the counter, passing close to the Domination people. She didn’t look at them, but she could feel their blue eyes on her.
“Two large black coffees, please.”
The counter assistant handed them over. Heather paid and began to walk back with a mug in each hand. She saw her father poised for taking off. She came to Domination’s table. She paused by it. The man and woman looked up at her, intently.
“Here. The coffee’s on me!” cried Heather, and she flung the scalding coffee into their laps.
Pandemonium broke out. The pair leapt up, shouting in pain and shock. Heather had the presence of mind to tip the table over on them too, knocking them down, before she took to her heels with her father. The counter staff began yelling. Out of the corner of her eye, Heather saw the two lurking Domination members in the mall start to run after them.
But she and Ray had a good few metres’ start. If they could just get themselves out of the shopping centre, they’d be able to lose themselves in the crowd outside. The exit wasn’t far. But then disaster struck. Ray’s shoelace had unravelled and sent him flying. Heather could hardly believe he’d fallen over for the second time that day. She stopped and turned back to help him, but he roared at her to leave him.
For a fraction of a second Heather hesitated, uncertain what to do. She didn’t like to desert her father, but the Domination guys were onto them. He was right – she had to go. So with a last despairing look at her father, she turned and fled.
She didn’t stop running for at least five minutes. She barged her way through the shoppers, who grumbled complaints at her. She wove in and out of the crowd until at last she had to pause for breath. She chose a busy corner, close to a flower stall, to stop and take stock.
One night on the ferry and one night in a hotel watching France play Spain in the World Cup later, we pulled into Les Fragnes about midday on the 28th June. Nigel and Philippe, the estate agents, were there to meet us as we rumbled down the drive with our trailer of essential belongings. They were delighted to see us and had laid out a picnic with lashings of wine for the adults and a mountain of crisps for the children. (They’d phoned us a few times during the course of the morning to make sure we were still coming and hadn’t turned and fled en route.) They didn’t have the keys to the houses, though, so we could only peer covetously through the filthy windows. But the buildings were undeniably still there so all seemed well. They discouraged us from walking around too much, saying we needed to get into Boussac in good time. So we took their advice, unhitched the trailer, overindulged and followed them to the town.
Our first stop was at the insurance office. Before we could buy Les Fragnes, we had to have proof for the Notaire that we’d insured it, even though it wasn’t ours yet – one of those chicken and egg peculiarities you learn to live with in France. So Nigel came with me to the GAN office to see M Orsal, the best dressed insurance agent around with a penchant for pointy-toe shoes, and we sorted this out. And on to the serious stuff chez Maître Bouret, le Notaire.
The first thing Chris and I did was remarry. Well, sort of. We changed our marital regime. The French see English marriages as being en indivision in nature. This means that if one of you dies, your spouse gets half of what’s left and the kids (or other relatives if there aren’t children) share the other half between them. Not really the best idea. So we took on the communauté universelle regime. Now whichever of us lasted longer got the lot, ideally to fritter away merrily before the kids could get their hands on it. Perfect. That process took half an hour or so and cost about four hundred euro. That’s probably more than we spent in total at our original modest little wedding back at Westerfield in 1986. We went out to check on the kids who were reading happily in the waiting room, and the rest of the cast arrived. First came M and Mme Paray, the vendors. They ran a builders’ merchant’s in Boussac. They had inherited Les Fragnes from some relative or other and had been letting it out for the last forty years. To M and Mme Leblanc, who were the next to arrive. They were giving up their right to be tenants so the Pasquets could sell to us. They therefore had to be there to sign all the documents too. Nic Orlande rolled up next, our translator. He was a beanpole of a man, with short grey hair and a friendly face. So with us, Philippe and Nigel and the Notaire, we were all assembled. There were slightly suspicious handshakings and cheek kisses, a lot of nervousness, and then proceedings got underway.
The sale took ages. The Notaire read out every page of the long, long Acte de Vente document, which Nic, sitting behind us, concurrently translated and quietly whispered into our ears. Then I got up and initialled every page and finally signed the last one, the first to commit to this crazy enterprise. Then Chris, then the Leblancs then the Parays, and then the Notaire. Phew. By now we’d sent the two eldest kids off with money to buy magazines and ice-creams in the town, and brought Ruadhri in to fidget and snooze on my lap.
And then, momentously, Les Fragnes was ours. The huge keys were given to us. Happy handshakings and cheek kisses all round, no nervousness anymore on the French side but a hell of a lot more on the English. We staggered to the nearest café for a stiff drink before packing up the family and driving back to our farm. The first thing we found when walking round the buildings was that about a square metre of wall was peeling away, just under the roof of the tallest house. That hadn’t been like that back in December. No wonder Nigel and Philippe had kept us well away before the signing ceremony! And going into the houses, we discovered that the hunting club had ripped out the heating range, the lighting and the ceiling i.e. their few redeeming features. To Benjamin’s disappointment, the girlie calendars had gone too. We later found most of the hardware dumped either in the green lane alongside our property, or in the woodland beyond the dam wall of the big lake. Quite why they’d gone all the effort to perform this piece of mindless vandalism is a puzzle. We hope it wasn’t aimed at us. I think it was more a protest against the vendor for vending. But we were the ones who lost out. And talking of the big lake, it wasn’t many days before we realised it was fishless. Despite our agreement to the contrary, the fish had been removed and flogged. That felt extremely personal and was a massive blow.
That evening we were tired and despondent and now terrified by what we’d done. Chris inspected the dodgy wall and realised fully for the first time that the houses were built of mud and stones. And that was it. Just one step up from a mud hut basically. Now, we’d had a sort of survey done. They don’t really have them in France, but you can get a builder or architect to take a look at a property for you and give his or her professional opinion on the state of the place. We’d used a builder recommended by Frédéric, Philippe’s son. He typed up a little report which stated firmly that the buildings were ‘sain et sauf’ i.e. safe and sound. Yeah right, we thought now. But tough. Under French law, there’s no comeback. If you buy a house and it falls to the ground next day, tant pis.
My samplesunday contribution this week is the opening chapter from Beat the Hackers, the next of my books to hit Kindle in the very near future.
Monday 13 May 2013
Heather Mayhew strode briskly up the steep hill towards home. She’d just got off the school bus. It was running late today, so that was why she wasn’t hanging about. Her father would be watching the clock, and if she was more than a few minutes later than normal, he’d be out looking for her. He was a worrier.
Ray Mayhew ran a computer programming business from home. And what a home it was. He and Heather lived in a large, rambling house surrounded by several acres of garden and orchards. Ray was extremely successful these days. He’d had a big breakthrough a few years ago when he’d developed an app that made it really quick and easy for people to monitor their emails, Tweets and Facebook messages. It quickly emerged as the best by far on the market, and he’d made an awful lot of money from it. So Heather had everything she could possibly need – and a few more things besides. She didn’t think of herself as particularly lucky, though. She simply took it for granted.
“Hi Dad!” Heather called as she opened the front door. “It’s me!”
“Hello!” Ray replied, shouting from his office at the top of the stairs. “I’ll be down in a mo. Pop the kettle on, please.”
Heather and her father always had a cup of tea together when she got back from school. It was one of their little rituals. Then she would get on with her homework, and Ray would go back upstairs to work, apart from Tuesdays when he drove Heather to town for swimming club and Fridays when it was Scouts. But today was Monday so Heather had the evening to herself. She decided she’d get her inline skates out later since it was warm and bright. And then maybe she’d read and catch up with her friends on Facebook. She hummed happily as she filled the kettle. She was very content with her ordered, steady life.
A clumping on the stairs signalled that her father was coming down. She pulled the biscuit tin out of the cupboard. It contained a mixture of digestives for Ray and ginger nuts for her.
“So what did you learn today, princess?” smield Ray, as he came into the kitchen. He was small and wiry, with unfashionable thick, black-framed glasses, a bushy beard and a lot of ginger hair. He was usually scruffy, except for when he met clients. Today hadn’t been a day of meeting so he was dressed in baggy jogging pants, a shabby checked shirt and odd slippers. But Heather wasn’t surprised at his appearance. Ray always looked something like that.
“Oh, we did loads of stuff,” she replied vaguely. “Mainly pretty boring. How’s your new program coming along?”
“Fine, fine,” smiled Ray. “Not too much more to do on it now.”
“It’s an anti-hacking program, right?” Heather asked conversationally, dunking two ginger nuts at once into her sweet, milky tea.
“It certainly is,” her father nodded, adding a fourth spoonful of sugar to his mug of black tea. Neither passed a comment on the other’s greediness. They were too used to each other to even notice.
“So you’ll stop all those wretched hackers messing up other people’s computers just for fun then? Cool.” She munched her biscuits thoughtfully. “But why do hackers, you know, hack? It’s so nasty.”
Ray shrugged. “Because they can mainly. And because they’re mean. Well, most are. Some hackers are harmless enough.”
“They don’t sound harmless,” protested Heather.
“What I mean,” Ray went on, “is that some hackers break into systems just to prove a point. They leave a message describing what they’ve done so the person at the other end can tighten up on security before a malicious hacker, or cracker, gets in the same way.”
“Still sneaky,” observed Heather. “But why is there so much hacking these days? A few years ago there didn’t seem to be so much going on. It’s all the time these days.”
Heather was right. In the last two days alone a thirteen-year-old girl in America had crippled three huge corporations by hacking into their websites. And in Strasbourg the computer systems of the European Parliament had been sabotaged by some as yet unknown hacker.
“It’s easier these days, Heth,” her father sighed, “because of WiFi. Most people connect to the Internet wirelessly now. The days of cables and modems are over. But it does mean that unless you physically disconnect from the WiFi network, or turn your livebox off, your computer has a static address that’s there all day, every day.”
“Twenty-four seven, you mean,” Heather corrected her father. “That’s the cool way to say it.”
“OK. Twenty-four seven it is,” agreed Ray, helping himself to a third digestive. “So it’s easier for a hacker browsing around to find an address to attack.”
“When you say address,” frowned Heather, “do you mean the website name?”
“No, the IP – Internet Protocol – address. Each computer on the Internet has a unique IP address, which is a series of numbers in groups of three. These numbers are the way information finds its way from the source to where it’s going. The website or domain names aren’t what the computers are using. They’re just there for the humans. People are better at remembering names than numbers, although that might change in a few thousand years’ time.” Ray smiled. “I read an article the other day saying that our brains are evolving to be better with numbers since they are becoming such an important part of our lives. You know, telephone numbers, car registrations, PIN numbers – that sort of thing.”
“Well, I wish mine would evolve extra fast,” sighed Heather. “I’d do better at maths then. You know how much I it! But about hackers, Dad. How will your new program keep them out?”
“That’s top secret,” her father winked.
“You mean I wouldn’t understand,” laughed Heather.
“We-ell, it is a bit technical,” admitted Ray. “Basically my program makes personal firewalls stronger.”
“I’ve heard of them, but I don’t really know what they are,” confessed Heather.
“A firewall is just a pair of mechanisms,” Ray told her. “One blocks unwanted traffic while the other permits authorised traffic through. In a nutshell, it keeps the idiots out of your computer and lets you get on with what you’re doing. And what’s more, the firewall can act as a tracing tool. My program sends an alert any time someone comes sniffing round, trying to crack the system. I may even install an automatic shutdown at that point as extra defence. But that might annoy the user too much. I’m including a virus detector too, to pick up viruses coming from the Internet and email. People are still so sloppy about computer security. They seem to think they’ll never get a virus.”
He trailed off and looked thoughtful.
“But your progam will beat the hackers, right?”
“I certainly hope so, Heth,” shrugged Ray. “I’m pinning a log on this program of mine. Talking of which, I’d better get back to work. And you’d better get your homework done, young lady.”
Heather pulled a face, but Dad was right. Time to tackle maths.
I’m steadily working my way through Jason Matthew’s excellent ebook How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks. It’s aimed at people like me who aren’t the most informed about all the Internet tools out there that we can use to produce and sell our books. It’s a positive goldmine of information. There’s a Facebook group that Jason has set up too. I’ve joined that and am cyber-meeting some very enthusiastic and talented writers.
I’m very positive and excited about producing my ebooks. I’m mugging up on SEO at the moment. Up to now my eyes had glazed over every time I’d seen it mentioned and thought there was no way I could ever get the hang of it. However, I’m starting to see how it all fits together, thanks to this book, and I shall try harder to be less of a Luddite!
I’ll review this book properly when I’ve finished it, but so far I’m really impressed and am finding it invaluable.
And it’s Sunday, so here’s this week’s#sundaysample. The first chapter of Oh Auntie! (for 7-11 year olds).
Chapter 1: Auntie Arrives
“Auntie’s here!” yelled Robyn as a sleek, silver Porsche pulled into the farmyard.
She had been watching out of the kitchen window with her younger brother Paul.
“At last,” cried Dad. He and Mum were already late setting off. They were heading away to a big conference about organic farming, up in the city. And so Auntie had come to babysit for the weekend.
Auntie was Mum’s big sister. Her name was actually Jane but she’d never liked that, so she kept changing it. Over the years she had been Jade, Joy, Janet, Jemima, Jasmine, Judy and Jennifer. It was very confusing so that was why everyone, even Mum and Dad, just called her Auntie.
Auntie was very rich. She had an important job in the city. She drove fast cars and had a huge wardrobe of designer label clothes. She was tall, elegant and beautiful. But she wasn’t much fun. Robyn and Paul were reckoning on having a very boring weekend with her.
Auntie picked her way carefully across the muddy farmyard in her crazily high stiletto shoes. She was wearing a Ralph Lauren lilac trouser suit and a matching Deva pashmina with glittering crystals on the tassels. She shimmered into the kitchen. Mum gave her a hug. Auntie winced.
“Don’t crumple my suit, there’s a dear,” she said, smoothing imaginary crinkles out of the fabric. “George, run and get my suitcases. And don’t scratch the car.”
Dad went outside grumbling. He didn’t like Auntie much. She was very bossy. It took three trips to bring all Auntie’s matching Burberry suitcases and bags into the guest room.
“Goodness, whatever’s all that for? You’re only here for a couple of days!” laughed Mum as Dad staggered by with the last of the luggage.
Auntie glared at her. “I assure you, it’s all essential.”
Mum shrugged and winked at the children. “Right, we need to go. Be good for Auntie please.”
“And do keep an eye on Barbie,” said Dad. “She shouldn’t calve just yet, but if she does, tell Billy at once. OK?”
Robyn and Paul nodded wearily. Dad had told them what to do at least fifty times already that day. But Barbie – named by Robyn when she was a little girl – was his favourite cow and Dad was a bit of a worrier. Billy was the farmhand and he lived just down the road.
“Time we went!” said Mum.
And after lots of kisses and hugs and more sets of instructions from Dad they did.
Every Sunday from now on I shall be participating in #SampleSunday. I found out about it here. The idea is you put up a sample of your work, and then tweet the link to your tweeps and hope people will read it and retweet if they enjoy it. I thought I’d join in with the first chapter of Heads Above Water.
Heads Above Water is the account of our family’s move from Ireland to France, and coping with our new life here. It was a very eventful time – and still is. So I think you’ll find it entertaining and enjoyable. Anyway, let me know!
Chapter 1 : Time to go
Aux grands maux les grands remèdes.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
We arrived in Ireland in 1992, when times were good, cars were held together by string and food prices were almost non-existent. Having only ever lived in cramped housing estates in England, with tiny gardens and too many neighbours, we couldn’t believe our luck at finding a bungalow in the countryside to rent. We called it Harry’s House, after our amiable landlord, Harry Kidney. He didn’t put the rent up in over three years, and on the rare occasions we had a building-related problem, he was at the front door to sort it out within minutes, even though he lived half an hour away. Harry’s House had a large back garden and a fantastic view over nearby fields and distant Cork city. It was in a row of five other bungalows, all housing lovely families.
We were a young(ish) couple with our first child. Chris had been made redundant, a victim of Thatcher’s Britain, literally a few weeks after I’d smugly told my previous employers, an accountancy firm, that I wouldn’t be coming back after maternity leave. So the search to provide for his suddenly frighteningly dependent family brought him to the Emerald Isle, initially on a temporary basis. After a few months that became a permanent basis, and we moved everything across between May and September. The biggest part of the move was interesting, to say the least. We needed to get some kind of document from our solicitor before our possessions could be shipped abroad. Hours before we were meant to leave, we still hadn’t got it. Chris was afflicted with a stomach bug so I was the only functioning one. With infant in arms, I bellowed at the solicitor to get his finger out and give us the damned bit of paper. We didn’t like our solicitor. About six months earlier, our neighbours had suddenly decided that their lives weren’t worth living without a few extra inches of land. So they dreamt up a boundary dispute in which our solicitor was frankly worse than useless, giving contradictory advice and doing nothing helpful at all. And now we depended on him to be allowed to get our goods and chattels out of the country on time. It was worrying. Anyway, the letter appeared with minutes to go so we could drive off into the sunset. Boy, were we glad to go.
We’d worked out that, with careful budgeting, I could be a stay-at-home mum, at least for a few years. Before my misguided foray into the world of finance, where I was a square peg in a round hole, or rather an English graduate in a world of maths, I’d been a desk-editor in the educational department of Hodder and Stoughton in Kent, and then a sales rep for a clutch of academic presses, working from home in Cramlington, Northumberland. I’d done an MPhil in Publishing Studies at Stirling University after my degree at Oxford, and publishing was my first love. So I seized the opportunity parenthood now gave me to get back into it. I slowly established myself as a freelance editor and indexer, something I’m still doing. From editing I meandered into authoring, and produced almost thirty books during my years in Ireland.
Caitlin arrived in 1994 and we were well content with our ‘gentleman’s family’, as they call it in Ireland, of a boy and then a girl. We finally sold the house we’d left behind in Hartlepool in 1995 and, within weeks of burying my Mum, we moved out of Harry’s House and into our own one at Killountain, Insnishannon. We loved Binn an Tí, despite never knowing for sure what the house’s name actually meant. Some people said it meant ‘apex of the roof’ and others ‘the woman of the house’. Not a great deal of common ground between these two, but that seems to be a feature of the Irish language. No-one actually knows what it means.
The house was perched at the very top of a hill. There was a stunning view but a permanent gale. Nothing grew in the garden and our bathroom at the back of the house was always sub-zero. When the hurricane hit at Christmas 1997, it’s frankly amazing that we only lost a few tiles and not the whole top storey. As before, and always the case in Ireland, we had wonderful neighbours and we were happy. This was it. We were Settled. We started to map out our future now that we had our perfect family and our house. But it doesn’t do to make plans. Things suddenly change.
My dad finally smoked himself to death in 2000. Now, there were two major repercussions from this. Now that he’d gone, all ties with my childhood home and town were gone too. On top of losing a wonderful human being from my life, that was tough and I was very upset. Chris was amazingly and constantly supportive, so much so that six weeks later, the day before his 42nd birthday, we found out that I was pregnant. The baby was due somewhere around my 39th birthday. That was funeral fallout number one, and talk about gobsmacked. This most definitely hadn’t been on our ‘to do’ list. We were too old for this! After a stunned day, our shock turned to delight at the prospect of welcoming a new life into our family. The prospect of labour pains, broken nights and having to borrow back all the baby equipment we’d given away after Caitlin outgrew it was less appealing, but an integral part of the deal. We also realised that there was no way we’d fit an extra person into our already bulging-at-the-seams house. Binn An Tí had always been on the small side, but we liked it so much. However, now we would have to move on.
The second fallout was that Dad left some money, enough to buy a plot of land at Finnis, near Bandon. We luckily got in just before Irish land prices went crazy and for 50,000 Irish punts we became the owners of over an acre of land. It had a stream and was generally rather boggy, but the top end of the site was ideal for our new chez nous. And so, thanks to Tony Barry our builder, Srihain an Sionnoch came into being in 2003. The name means ‘Stream of the Fox’. We were offered a variety of versions and spellings for it, naturally, but stuck with that one. It was a fantastic house, way too big, but after Binn An Tí we felt the need to overcompensate. Size matters. Its best feature was the glass frontage to the hall, which filled the house with light. We had more space than we knew what to do with. We lived there three years but never got round to even setting foot in one of the rooms.
I continued to be happy in Ireland. Now that I was a popular children’s author, I added visits to schools and libraries to my job description. Ruadhri came along together with his travel playpen, and took part in every workshop. I loved these sessions which included getting the kids to dress up as a book, and later as all the people involved in producing a book – author, editor, printer, bookseller and so on. I was aiming to make writing seem fun. I’d been to author workshops where a po-faced writer mumbled his or her way through one of their stories and I thought that sucked. So I aimed higher and came up with my act. But then, I always was a show off.
Chris, however, was on a downward spiral. A chemist by training, he started off working in Ireland in 1992 for Angus Chemicals, running a lab. Angus became Hickson Pharmachem very shortly afterwards, just in time for an explosion at the site in 1993. (Nothing to do with Chris, honestly.) Needless to say, that brought it a lot of bad press. Hickson never thrived and the factory was taken over in 1997 by Warner. Finally, in 2001 Pfizer couldn’t resist having a go at ownership of it. Each time new layers of management came in and Chris was moved further and further sideways. Promises of promotion never materialised and people-persons rather than technical-persons seemed to dominate. It became harder to keep going. There was the real threat that he’d lose his sanity or succumb to heart disease and stress. Life wasn’t fun anymore. Then redundancy loomed. This was our chance to change our lives.
We’d toyed with the idea of moving to France a number of times, but never very seriously. It just seemed too big a deal. After our honeymoon in Cornwall, every other holiday had been in France, discovering different regions of it. In the early years of our marriage, we’d roll off a plane with our bikes, tent and minimal supplies and cycle tour a particular region, covering more than a hundred and sixty kilometres a day. (The old-fashioned ‘hundred miles’ sounds so much more impressive!) Post-children that changed, inevitably. We took the car, either fitting the bikes precariously to the roof, or in later years, on to the top of a small trailer. Child life-support filled most of the car. Oh yes, and the children. We tried a couple of campsites but didn’t have a whole lot of luck. One year a hurricane hit the coast of Brittany and literally blew the tent away from over our heads. The next year we holidayed late in the season and the area around the caravan (we’d upgraded) was black with barbecue-tray emptyings-out. The kids were covered from head to toe in ash every night after playing in it. And that was the year Benj took against personal cleanliness. The whole campsite reverberated to his incessant, earsplitting but polite bellows of ‘No thank you!’ when we shoved him under running water every night.
So we moved even more upmarket (but downpriced surprisingly) to hiring a gîte, a holiday cottage. This was more like it – proper beds and space to swing a cat in. However, there was always a strong element of the unknown with a gîte booking. Those days, i.e. pre Internet, you based your entire rental decision on a very brief paragraph with puzzling abbreviations, and a postage-stamp-sized photo. Frankly, you had no idea what you were actually getting. Some we booked were great, some turned out to be disasters, but we just got on with it. (Oh, if only that mentality still existed!) In 2000, that fateful year, we even looked at a couple of properties. One was tempting. For the equivalent of 19,000 Irish punts we could have bought a rambling, rundown farmhouse. True, it had no bathroom facilities other than a toilet literally in the kitchen (and the house was inhabited). There was, bizarrely, a large swimming pool full of goldfish in the huge garden. The pool had been there so long it had sunk roughly 50 cms into the ground. But then Dad had his stroke and the struggle to get home began and we forgot about buying a house in France.
Until 2005. Never mind that we’d hardly started decorating our new house yet. It was time to leave it. It was truly a ‘now or never’ moment. Benj was about to start his Junior Cert course, Ruadhri was set to start in Junior Infants and Caiti would be moving up to senior school. If we were going to move, it had to be before September 2006. It was going to be fairly tough on the kids, and the older they were, the harder most likely. It was time to do some serious househunting in France.
I prepared for it like a military campaign. I spent hours on the Internet. OK, I used to spend hours on the Internet anyway, but now this was time usefully spent for a change looking up properties that matched what we wanted. Which was? We needed somewhere to live, and some means of making a living. I’d be able to carry on part-time editing but that wouldn’t keep us alive. Chris wouldn’t be able to carry on his professional career, so what could we do instead? The obvious option was providing holiday accommodation. Time was you could live off a gîte or bed and breakfast in France. But then everyone jumped on the bandwagon and there is now a surfeit of holiday properties. The famous Gîtes de France network alone has around 55,000 self-catering properties on its books. (Clévacances, the next largest, has around 24,000, and there are dozens more smaller outfits.) Quite frankly, if you get ten weeks’ bookings for a gîte per year, you’re doing well. There’s that much competition. The way to better that is to specialise. Look for a niche. Well, Chris was an angler so why not provide fishing lakes with our gîte? There’s a lot of pressure on the fishing waters in the UK and Ireland so there’s long been a tradition of anglers going abroad on fishing holidays, and particularly on carp fishing holidays in France. That seemed worth checking out. It proved to be our best bet, so we added a lake to our requirements.
Chris got busy doing a correspondence course on fishery management, and I carried on my research and planning. I found out all there is to know about owning lakes in France. I read book after book about how to make a living by running your own business in France. Some were inspiring, some were depressing, but all of them, it turned out later, not actually that helpful. A couple were positively idiotic. I read books by other pioneering ex-pats. Those were much more useful. I also worked for a TEFL diploma, just in case times grew very desperate.
But mainly I looked for our future home. I cordoned off half the (unpainted) lounge and spread out maps with cunningly colour coded pins stuck in showing what property was where. Red for hot favourites, blue for lakes without houses on site with them, green for promising all round and yellow for when all else failed. But every day there were changes. The place we thought was absolutely perfect and the only one that could possibly work for us got sold on a regular basis. Despair. New dream properties appeared on the scene. Rapture. I was up and down emotionally a hundred times a day and rapidly becoming a nervous wreck. Would I even survive long enough to make our planned move?
We’d narrowed our physical search to Limousin. This is pretty much slap bang in the middle of France. It consists of the départements of Creuse, Correze and Haute-Vienne. It is the lake district of France. And remember, we needed a lake. Limousin has thousands of lakes, and even more crumbling farmhouses and cottages, just waiting for a deranged foreigner to come and nurture it back into full health. French people don’t do renovating. They prefer new houses. A further bonus was that it was also pretty much the cheapest area of France for property then.
We settled on a week in late November to go and match reality to my coloured pins. Everyone advises you not to take children, and above all young children, when you go househunting abroad. But we had no alternative. We were already ex-pats in Ireland so had no handy family to leave them with. But anyway, they needed to come. They were part of the adventure – three fifths of the driving force behind it. Our search for our better life was so our youngsters would have it too. They needed to see where they were going to live. Besides, they were very excited about the whole thing.
I wrote letters to the children’s schools explaining that we needed them to mitch for a week, and promising to do some vaguely educational things while they were off. True to my word, I told Benj and Caiti to pack a couple of small schoolbooks each that they could look at in the evenings when we’d be stuck in hotels with foreign TV and therefore be bored. Caiti duly put in a SPHE book which never saw the light of day. Benj, however, put in at least half of his textbooks. Now Benj was at secondary school, and you know how much those textbooks weigh. Unfortunately I didn’t vet their rucksacks before we left. Big mistake.
The flights from Cork to central France, the cheap ones that is, aren’t too well organised. You get to Stansted about 9 in the morning, but the flights to Poitiers or Limoges don’t go till 5 or 6. That’s a long time to be hanging round an airport, especially with a four-year-old. So we decided that we’d show the children some of their English heritage and go into London, stay overnight, and fly out to France the following evening. I duly booked a suspiciously cheap hotel in Victoria, seats on the various shuttle trains to the city from the extreme limits of ‘London’ (i.e. the airport) and back again, and checked the opening times of the Natural History Museum. Ruadhri was in his dinosaur phase so we reckoned he’d love to see the fantastic display there.
Things went well to start with. The children enjoyed the plane, the train and the underground. The museum started off well. Ruadhri was fascinated by the dino skeletons. But when we went to see the animatronic T-rexes, oh boy. He freaked. He was still screaming half an hour later. We staggered to the café for a recovering brew. We needed it. As well as having a hysterical pre-schooler, we were hot and bothered and having to lug around our rucksacks with the life support we needed for that night. It was then Benj revealed his rucksack was a bit heavy.
“What have you got in it then?” asked Chris.
Benj unpacked it. Science textbook, history textbook, geography textbook, French textbook, German textbook, Irish textbook, English textbook. Each one weighed the same as his little brother. (Also, copy books, pens, pencils, electronic gizmos, pyjamas etc etc.)
We stared at him in disbelief. “I said one book!” I spluttered at last.
“Well, we’re away for a week!” he shrugged. “I thought I’d better bring more.”
So we redistributed his load amongst the other three rucksacks. Ruadhri’s didn’t count since it was teddy-bear sized and I was already carrying it anyway. I think that is when relations between Benj and his sister irrevocably broke down. She had to take one of his books. She will never forgive him. Chris and I took two each, and Benj managed the remaining two. We weren’t in good moods. Chris and I were having to carry Ruadhri at increasingly frequent intervals as he got tired, on top of being weighed down by super heavy rucksacks. Words were said. A certain child was disinherited.
But it was a fascinating visit, all the same. You need a week to see the place properly, though. We hit the souvenir shop and then staggered to the ‘hotel’. It was in deepest Waterloo. Our family room was a jungle of beds with about five centimetres between them, a miniscule bathroom and a telly. Mouse family room, I think. We climbed over each other to get in and out of bed and in and out of the bathroom. It was even hotter than the museum. But it was somewhere to crash.
The breakfast that was thrown in was also for mice but gave us enough energy to get to MacDonald’s for a second breakfast there. Why is it that your appetite increases exponentially any time you go away and aren’t able to self-cater? We spent a fortune on food and that was only to get us to France. We economised by walking rather than taking tubes, so we sauntered down to see the London Eye through Hyde Park. We peered in at Buckingham Palace through the gates. The Queen was in but not waving out of the window. We ambled off to Trafalgar Square but it was blocked off for some exhibition. The place was crawling with armed police. There was a post-Remembrance Day parade going on later and there were security issues. But seeing armed cops was just getting us ready for France. We finished up at Hamley’s for the children, via Covent Garden and that wonderful pie shop. We were ready to drop by the time we got back to Stansted, London.
Finally we left England and landed safely in a freezing cold Poitiers airport on Sunday evening. We’d hired a car for the week, something barely big enough to get us all into, but cheap. It was tricky finding it. Rental cars were left wherever there was room for them. The Hertz agent vaguely waved her hand when indicating where we might find it. It was dark and the foreign number plates were bewildering. Ireland has so got it right when it comes to car registrations. Every other country goes for some obscure, confusing method with too many letters and numbers. But eventually we found our Punto and we shivered our way to nearby Futuroscope where I’d booked another bargain room. But this was altogether a different experience. That room was cheap because it was off season. So off I’m pretty sure we were the only people in the huge, modernistic hotel. The receptionist took pity on us and upgraded us to a split level family suite. It was roomy but chilly. However, we were so tired we slept like logs. Till 5 am. Departure time.
I’m learning a lot these days as I prepare to become an ebook author. My latest discover is #samplesunday on Twitter. It’s an indie author thing. Enter #samplesunday as a search term and you’ll find links to samples of writing by people intending to self-publish. I shall be joining in from next week.
Two great websites I’ve recently discovered are Kindle Obsessed and Writinghood. These are packed full of info and tips. Check them out.